I am accustomed to seeing photos of the poor and the homeless standing in long lines at Budapest’s Blaha Lujza tér for food and hot meals, mostly provided by a foundation affiliated with the Hungarian branch of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKON), more commonly referred to as Hare Krishna. When my Hungarian friends send me these photos, as proof of the striking poverty in Hungary, I try to remind them that this sight is not uncommon in relatively wealthy and prosperous countries like Canada. I am the director of a Roman Catholic organization that runs a soup kitchen program five days a week in the Canadian capital, and we provide meals to an average of 120 guests each night. Most nights, you would see a long line-up of guests waiting outside our main entrance for their turn in our small dining area.
But what was truly striking this year was the news that people in Blaha Lujza tér began queuing at 3 AM and often waiting for upwards of eight hours to get their meals, which were served at 11 AM on December 24th. The 24.hu news site’s journalist, Dávid Katz, spoke with Mrs. Péter Szilaj, spokesperson of the Food for Life (Étel az Életért) Foundation, who confirmed that people were waiting in long lines well before 9 am, when they began distributing numbers for those in the queue. They ended up distributing 1,600 numbered bracelets to those lining up for food. One of the men waiting in line since 3 AM told 24.hu’s journalist that he travelled to Budapest from rural Hungary just to receive a free, hot meal and some food to take home.
At 11 am, the foundation served up a traditional Hungarian dish called Székelykáposzta (a type of sauerkraut stew) and an Indian-style pudding made from cornmeal. Their guests also received small food items to take home, including Kefir, dairy products and even small boxes of premium chocolates donated by Stühmer, the Hungarian chocolate manufacturer.
The Food For Life Foundation also provided the poor and the homeless with a hot meal in Budapest on both December 25th and December 26th. The cost to produce a single meal, including both the Székelykáposzta and the Indian cornmeal pudding is merely 250 forints (C$1.15) and the Foundation is supported through small individual donations.
While many Hungarians donate the 1% of their income taxes allowed by law to charities like Food For Life, one of the most prominent political analysts in Hungary, who is often hired as a consultant by the Orbán government, saw it fit to attack Food For Life’s community meal program this Christmas on a pro-government blog called Mozgástér. Zoltán Kiszelly wrote: “It is a usual thing that liberals use gut-wrenching photos of vulnerable people to advance the interests of the upper 1%.” Mr. Kiszelly believes that the upper 1%, with whom the liberals are colluding, include western investors who loaned money to Hungary under the Kádár regime, and then later under successive Socialist governments, at high interest rates, as well as “those liberal intellectuals who received billions to research poverty and the Gypsy community, and for related projects and conferences, none of which improved the lot of the poorest people over the last 25 years.”
Mr. Kiszelly believes that liberals are trying to offload the full burden of caring for Hungary’s poor onto the middle class. The right solution, in his mind, is what he sees as the approach of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government.
“Instead of handing out fish, the Orbán government gives the poor a net. We must not preserve a state of vulnerability through government assistance, but must instead show the way out through education and job creation. The new rules are clear: workfare is better than welfare and jobs created by the free market are better than workfare programs,” writes Mr. Kiszelly.
Other that this being crass and uncharitable, in an Ayn Rand sort of way, Mr. Kiszelly’s words are disingenuous coming from someone who has built his livelihood on public funds. In 2016, Mr. Kiszelly billed the Prime Minister’s Office for some 6.9 million forints (C$32,000) in consulting fees. He is also employed by Századvég–a pro-government think tank, which has received lavish state monies over the years. Mr. Kiszelly’s career path, like those of so many young Hungarian “conservatives” who swear by the free market and dismiss state social programs, has been built in very significant part on public funds.
And as for not preserving a state of vulnerability in Hungary: no previous Hungarian government’s leitmotif involved capitalizing on, and exacerbating the vulnerabilities of different demographics in society more than the current Fidesz government.
Hungary needs more initiatives like that launched by Food for Life. And press coverage of this is an important reminder to all–citizens and visitors alike–that poverty is a widespread problem in Hungary.