Hungary’s demographic revolution? Roma youth comprise a third of all students in eastern Hungarian counties

Attila Z. Papp, a researcher affiliated with the Hungarian Academy of Sciences’ Minority Studies Institute, presented research findings on significant demographic changes in Hungary that made headlines in the Hungarian media. The conservative Heti Válasz weekly magazine wrote about a “demographic revolution” and how there are now 298 schools in Hungary where Roma students form the majority of the pupil base. In Budapest’s 8th District, nearly every second student (43%) enrolled in elementary or high school is of Roma origin, while the proportion of Roma pupils in the adjacent 7th District stands at 23%. The right-wing Magyar Nemzet daily tried to nuance the story by speaking with another researcher of Roma-related issues, István Forgács, who pointed out that all of these statistics are estimates, as there are no exact figures relating to the ethic composition of Hungarian schools. Privacy laws dating back to 1993 prohibit Hungarian authorities from gathering such data. That having been said, he feels that Mr. Papp’s estimates are probably among the most accurate of those compiled in recent years. Mr. Forgács emphasizes that when exploring the relationship between poverty and a specific ethnic minority, the focus need not be on ethnicity, but on the question of the socio-economic milieu within which children are being raised. “It’s not the same if a child is raised in Pasarét and has a realistic chance of gaining admission to a foreign university, or if he/she is raised in Sajóköz, with welfare being their only prospect,” observed Mr. Forgács. (Pasarét is a leafy, relatively affluent neighbourhood in Buda, while Sajóköz is located in the economically disadvantaged northeastern Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén county.)

Mr. Papp’s research, based on information obtained from school principals, administrators and teachers, suggests that 33% of students in Borsod county public schools are of Roma origin, while in neighbouring Nógrád country, this proportion stands at 34%. Mr. Papp adds that drop-out rates are highest in these regions–and the performance of students is by far the lowest–which should not come as a surprise, as this is usually the case in economically disadvantaged areas, regardless of ethnicity.

Proportion of students in Hungarian public schools, by county, who are of Roma origin. Source: MNO's map, based on data obtained from HVG.

Estimated proportion of Roma students in Hungarian public schools, by county.  Source: MNO’s map, based on data obtained from HVG.

Most researchers estimate that the Roma comprise approximately 9% to 10% of Hungary’s population, even though official statistics compiled by Hungarian authorities are always lower than this, and almost certainly underestimate the actual size of the country’s largest minority. My post-modern streak tells me that if people choose not to identify themselves as Roma for the census, then that is a choice that must be respected and—anyhow–ethnic identity is ultimately a construct. If you claim not to be Roma–even though your parents considered themselves to belong to this minority, and society thinks that you are one as well–then we must accept and respect your decision and view you as Hungarian only, or whatever other ethnic identity you choose for yourself. This is my default position when it comes to issues of ethnic, cultural and national  identity. But if people of Roma origin in Hungary are not reporting their heritage to census officials because they fear discrimination, then there is a problem. I suspect this to be the case, even though Hungarian society is traditionally quite assimilationist.

The 2011 census, for instance, puts Hungary’s Roma population at 316,000, or just 3.2% of the population. There is, even within the official statistics, a recognition of the rapid growth of the Roma minority, compared to the previous census in 2001.  The proportion of the Roma population is more than 150% higher than it was 10 years prior. According to the census, one third of  Hungary’s Roma population is under 18 years of age, which is double the national average. According to a study by researcher Géza Dúl, 36% of Hungarian Roma only have a Grade 8 education, while an additional 30% dropped out of school before reaching the age of 14.  The proportion of high school graduates stands at just 11%. (This proportion is even lower, according to the 2011 census.)

Ethnic minorities, according to Hungary's 2011 census. The Roma are listed under Cigány/Beás. Note as well that Germans comprise Hungary's second largest minority.

Ethnic minorities, according to Hungary’s 2011 census. The Roma are listed under Cigány/Romani/Beás. Note as well that Germans comprise Hungary’s second largest minority.

No Hungarian government has managed to markedly increase the social mobility and integration of the growing Roma population, but what makes the Fidesz government stand out as a negative example even in this regard, is its avowed lack of sensitivity to the needs of Hungary’s poorest and most marginalized populations, its cutbacks to social services and an educational policy that seems to discourage students of more modest socio-economic backgrounds from completing and continuing their studies. (Fidesz had an interest in reducing the compulsory school age to 16 and has also dramatically decreased university enrollment levels.) These policies don’t only negatively impact the Roma minority, but anyone in Hungary who is vulnerable, as a result of their sccio-economic situation. Since Fidesz came to power, poverty levels and inequalities have increased noticeably. More than 31% of the population lives in poverty. Additionally, nearly one out of every four Hungarian children live under the poverty line.  These levels of poverty, combined with high unemployment, have played a crucial role in the rise of the far-right Jobbik, especially in areas of northeastern Hungary that have significant Roma populations. These are Jobbik’s traditional power bases, but the party has by now expanded well into more affluent areas of western Hungary. This is perhaps best evidenced by the fact that according to’s calculations, Jobbik stands the best chance of winning a hotly contested by-election in the Tapolca  riding this coming Sunday. (This has been held by Fidesz since the nineties.)

With an estimated 20% to 25% of Hungarian children under the age of 5 being of Roma origin, the Hungarian government needs to take the issue of social mobility (or lack thereof) far more seriously and must re-think its overall approach to issues of public education and welfare. Undoubtedly, the lack of prominent role models and leaders within the Roma community also hinders social mobility. Hungary needs a Martin Luther King Jr. (and possibly even a Malcolm X, at least to shake people out of their slumber), but there is no one of this caliber and background on the horizon.

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