Viktor Orbán’s deal for women and a plan to increase the birth rate in Hungary

Immediately after being re-elected in April, Viktor Orbán indicated that addressing demographic issues would form a central plank in his government’s program. The decline in Hungary’s population has been a reality for more than three decades, after peaking at 10.7 million in 1981. In 2017 alone, the country’s population decreased by 40,000, with the number of births falling by 2.9% in December, compared to the same period in 2016. Hungary’s population is now just over 9.7 million–one million less than three decades ago–and the fertility rate is 1.49, lower than the European Union average of 1.6.

During his latest interview on Kossuth Radio, Mr. Orbán elaborated on what he has planned, noting that the first step is for the government to launch a national dialogue with women. He said:

“I would like to reach a comprehensive agreement with Hungarian women, because the success or failure of our demographics hinges on them. I think it is important for them to tell us, and for us to understand, what they want, because the decision to have children is the most personal question–but one that is important for the entire community. In fact, I can say that it is the most personal public affair–but one that only women can decide. It is my duty and that of my government to accept their decision. If they decide to have children, and can also explain how this can be made better and easier, including both in terms of the raising of children and keeping families together, then we must hear them. Then after this, we should strike an agreement not for four years, but for 15, 20 or 30 years, because the foundation of the politics of demographics is the ability to plan for the long-term. Let us come to a long-term agreement on their role and, on the part of the government, on the perspectives that we can offer them.”

Viktor Orbán with young Hungarians on 23 April 2018.

Mr. Orbán is correct in noting that a more long-term approach is needed when it comes to questions of demography. It would make little sense to launch a program that lasts four or eight years (the length of one or two government mandates), when the decision to have children involves a direct commitment for parents lasting 18 years or more.

The goal is to increase the fertility rate to 2.1 by 2030–this is the level needed to maintain Hungary’s population. It’s clear that Mr. Orbán will launch some type of a consultation or outreach initiative to women as the government works on formulating a program. Observers believe that some of the initiatives could include options such as increasing the tax break for parents with two or more children. Based on the current program, parents with two children or more will receive 20,000 forints per month (circa C$100) per child as a tax break starting in 2019. A new program could expand this benefit. Another option is to increase the amount paid to parents through Hungary’s child support program, abbreviated as GYED, as well as to increase the one-time lump sum payments that Hungarian mothers receive after their child is born. (This amount is calculated as 225% of the smallest monthly old-age pension in Hungary.)

Other incentives that observers believe the government is contemplating include the expansion of day care and kindergarten programs, as well as supporting companies that provide flexible part-time work for mothers who wish to return to work gradually.

Another idea floated around in Hungary is to use pensions as an incentive for Hungarians to have more children. In other words, more children would mean higher pensions, while those who do not have children could be indirectly penalized through smaller pensions. This idea is certain to be divisive in Hungarian society.

Mr. Orbán will probably need a credible female government minister if he plans to reach out to Hungarian women and to engage them on these issues. The Hungarian government has not had a single female minister since June 2014. Up until that point Mrs. László Németh (née Zsuzsanna Serényi) served as Minister of National Development and as the only female member of the Orbán cabinet. There is some speculation that 40 year old State Secretary Katalin Novák may be appointed minister.

The other issue with Mr. Orbán’s plan is that it ignores men. It would appear that men have no role to play within a relationship when it comes to deciding whether to have children, and that they have no role to play in child rearing. Both mothers and fathers have responsibilities when it comes to raising children and ideally, they are equal partners. As a recognition of this reality, Mr. Orbán should consult both women and men.

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