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Hungary’s demographic revolution

After the fall of Communism in 1989, few European countries have attempted to raise their fertility rates. However, serious efforts are being made in Hungary, Poland, and most recently Italy to do so.

Published: November 16, 2018, 6:58 am

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    Hungary has made the most profound and lasting of these changes since Prime Minister Viktor Orban came to power in 2010, implementing various natalist policies.

    Lyman Stone of the Institute for Family Studies has written an comprehensive account of Hungary’s demographic policies and evolution. Stone notes that Orban refounded the political and constitutional framework in Hungary to center on the family.

    Hungary’s constitution includes statements such as, “We trust in a jointly-shaped future and the commitment of younger generations. We believe that our children and grandchildren will make Hungary great again,” and, “We hold that the family and the nation constitute the principal framework for our coexistence,” and “We bear responsibility for our descendants.”

    It also includes committments to Hungary’s historic national heritage, Christian identity, and community values. Moreover, Article L of the constitution states that “Hungary shall protect the institution of marriage as the union of a man and a woman […] and the family as the basis of the nation’s survival. Hungary shall encourage the commitment to have children. The protection of families shall be regulated by a cardinal Act”.

    The country has rejected an typically Western individualist notion of democracy, which sees human beings as atoms, free from a chain of generations. Orban thus calls his country an “illiberal democracy”.

    Since 2011, Hungary has adopted a wide array of measures to boost fertility and support families. Stone points to various measures undertaken by the governing party:

    The Orban family sets an example. Photo supplied

    “First of all, in 2011 and 2012, Hungary changed the structure of their tax exemptions for children, providing new deductions that saved families between $400 and $1 500 on their tax bill per child, depending on how many kids they have.”

    Previous research suggests that increased tax exemption boosts birth rates. It is estimated that the policy change resulted in 6 000 and 18 000 more births from 2011 to 2013.

    Stone notes that support to families has reach an unprecedented level with the introduction of a new family-housing subsidy in 2015.

    In 2015, families were given generous subsidies to buy or build new homes, and the subsidies were scaled based on marital status and the number of children. This “Family Housing Allowance Program,” or CSOK (the abbreviation of the program’s Hungarian name), gives a maximum benefit to married couples with three or more children.

    The sheer scale of these programs is impressive, suggesting that Hungary is certainly motivated to reverse Europe’s demographic decline.

    So far, the effect has been moderately positive. According to Eurostat, the Hungarian fertility rate fell to 1,25 in 2012 (the lowest in the EU) and has since risen to 1,53 as of 2016, a rise of 22,4 percent.

    The Hungarian government argues however that they have seen major progress in restoring families, namely with a marked increase in marriages and decline in divorces and abortions.

    It is true that since 2010, Hungary’s marriage policy has shown real results: by 2017, abortion numbers had dropped by more than a third, from 40 449 to 28 500, divorces saw a marked decline (from 23 873 in 2010 to 18 600 in 2017), and the number of marriages had risen by some 42 percent.

    On top of this, the number of places in crèches has increased by 50 percent. It means that Hungary has managed to turn back the clock on much of the fertility and family-structure transition that demographers have long considered inevitable. Stable marriage is in fact a primary condition for the decision to have children.

    Although Hungary’s fertility rates are still extremely low – only about 1,5 children per woman – the government is spending huge amounts of money towards fertility gains, including tax preferences, cash grants, loan subsidies and constitutional protections.

    These policies may be effective in the long run however, because they are not being used in isolation, but rather together with other measures such as inducing marriage, not simply childbearing. Marriage helps boost long-run fertility, not just birth-timing, Stone notes.

    Recently a national consultation was held, asking Hungarian citizens what they think about various proposals to strengthen the family.

    The government has stated its purpose clearly: “The upcoming national consultation seeks citizen input on the foundations of a powerful family support scheme, hoping to send a straightforward message that Europe cannot be revived without strengthening families.”

    The questions relate to the introduction of full-time motherhood for women raising a minimum of four children, the two-thirds protection of grants provided for families raising children, and the provision of support for family members looking after sick children at home.

    By doing so, Hungary’s declining population will not be remedied by immigration, but rather by more intensive family support measures.

    By way of comparison, it has been observed that it took many decades for Israel’s pro-natalist policies to bear fruit, recently overtaking Arab fertility, which is a remarkable achievement.

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