The Spirit, Tools, and Results of Hungary’s Family Policy

As political leaders, our actions and decisions must be based on the values and traditions generally considered as fundamental by the major­ity of our society. We need to make efforts to survey the way our citizens choose their values, and understand their needs and motivations and, thus, to have a realistic view of what motivates them. We also must know and respect our history, our Christian roots, the values and principles that our nation was built upon. This is the way to make good decisions in favor of our citizens.

To better understand Hungary, the Hungarian government’s motiva­tions and goals, it is first necessary to survey our recent history. After 40 years of communist dictatorship, Hungary regained its independence and experienced a political transition in 1989-90. After 20 years of transi­tions in government, and without a real structural, political, ethical, or economic reconstruction, by 2010, our country and Hungarian people found themselves in a crisis. But then the current government, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, gained a 2/3 majority at the general elec­tions of 2010. We decided to rebuild our country on strong foundations.

We reject the concept of the neutrality of values, and, in terms of Hungary’s governance, we find such neutrality exceedingly harmful. We govern Hungary along clear values, in harmony with our own principles. This approach has proved to be a success: during the general elections of 2014, the Hungarian people for the third time gave their vote of con­fidence to a right-centre wing government, again by a vast majority. Hungarians believe in the ideal of a nation based on robust and unchal­lengeable values.

What are the important Christian values that we respect? Hungary respects human life, freedom, human dignity and communities. These values are the basic building blocks of Hungary’s democratic form of state, which evolved 26 years ago and whose practical implementation is guaranteed by Hungary’s legal system and its Fundamental Law (adopted in 2011). More specifically, the preamble to the Fundamental Law, enti­tled National Avowal, serves as a catalogue of Hungary’s values.

The National Avowal starts with the sentence: “God bless the Hungarians,” followed by these phrases: “We are proud that our king Saint Stephen built the Hungarian State on solid ground and made our country a part of Christian Europe one thousand years ago. We are proud of our forebears who fought for the survival, freedom and independence of our country.”

Hungary respects the independence of others states, recognizes their internal legislation and provisions, and expects other countries to do the same in return. Therefore, we would like to emphasize that, as a sovereign state, and as a member of different international organizations, while respecting commonly defined rules and principles, we shall define our own values and interests as well as governmental measures in favor of Hungarian citizens. We insist on this approach, which is evidenced most clearly in our foreign policy. We regard the European Union as an alliance of sovereign states. We believe that the unified force of nations stems from our common European roots. Nowadays, there are visible signs that the twenty-first-century European community tends to ignore its robust intellectual, cultural, and spiritual heritage to a growing degree, and fails to find its roots. This urges us to strengthen our nation state and our traditions, and, in this spirit, to defend our values bravely on the international stage.

We are convinced that approaches that put the individual’s welfare, success, and interests first do not bring about long-term economic and ethical growth. Such growth can be attained by a society solely through strong communities. The smallest and most basic of these communities is family. Family is the cradle and maintainer of life, and it is our duty to pro­tect and strengthen it. These principles and convictions are represented in our legal system. As the Hungarian Fundamental Law puts it, “We hold that the family and the nation constitute the principal framework of our coexistence, and that our fundamental cohesive values are fidelity, faith and love.” With its more specific provisions, the Fundamental Law makes efforts to offer a stronger protection for families and to recognize that families comprise the foundation of Hungary’s integrity. Beside the Fundamental Law, the Act on the Protection of Families also ensures that the rights of families are strengthened and widely recognized. Therefore, the interests of families have been the focus throughout the whole period of our governance. Supporting and strengthening families on a continu­ous basis allows for our nation’s stability.

What does the concept of “family” mean for us? There are various possible answers to this question, as family plays various roles in an indi­vidual’s life. Let me begin on a personal note. I am a minister of state in the Hungarian government, but before that, a daughter of my parents, sister of my brother, wife of my husband, and mother of our three won­derful children. Family is where I come from, family is whom I belong to, and family is the main source of joy and love in my life. In a more general way, family is the smallest, most basic, and strongest social community and, as such, it is the founding unit of society; at the same time, it is a community of individuals that serves as a home. Also, it is the focal point of private life. For the Hungarian government, family is the foundation stone for our choice of values and the guideline for our political deci­sions. Families show how strong a nation is. If families are weak, then the nation is weak, too. If families are strong, a strong nation may also be achieved.

This is our belief, along which we attempt to define the principles and measures of our social policy. The welfare of families is the motif and common denominator for our political acts. The reason for this is that the future of Hungary as a whole depends on what types of tools we create and operate in the interests of families. In 2010, being aware of Hungary’s demographic problems and neglected families, we initiated comprehensive reform of social and family policies. We decided to treat family policy as a basic entity, and—in order to create a family-friendly social environment—we set long-term goals.

Human life is also to be highly respected and protected in Hungary. This principle is emphasized in various parts of the Fundamental Law; for example, the Preamble reads: “We hold that human existence is based on human dignity.” Again, this time in the Section entitled “Freedom and Responsibility”: “Human dignity shall be inviolable. Every human being shall have the right to life and human dignity; the life of the fetus shall be protected from the moment of conception.” In 1991, the Institutional Court laid down the basis for the regulation of abortion. Accordingly, abortion is not prohibited in Hungary, yet—for the protection of unborn life—it is restricted and can be performed only when there are serious reasons for it. We believe that all human life must be respected in all stages.

Beside families and life, the protection of the value of marriage is another fundamental objective of ours. In twenty-first-century public discourse, marriage is often associated with negative qualities. Some think that marriage is an old-fashioned formality and should not neces­sarily precede having children. We, on the contrary, are convinced that the institution of marriage is indeed old but not outdated, being the most stable form of partner relationship and the one which offers the greatest security for children. Hungary’s Fundamental Law defines the concept of marriage as follows: “Hungary shall protect the institution of mar­riage, the conjugal union of a man and a woman based on voluntary and mutual consent, also the family, as the basis for survival of the nation.” The concept of marriage is a basic value of our legal system, and, thus, is to be protected and strengthened.

There is a great amount of evidence that justifies enshrining mar­riage in our legal code. First, married couples have almost twice as many children as partners in non-marital relationships do. A reason for this may be that the stability guaranteed by the family strengthens a couple’s intention to have children. Second, it is a well-known fact that married individuals live longer and are healthier, and that people supported by their family members heal more quickly. Family and children offer pro­tection to them.

As I have highlighted above, the way the majority of society choose their own values has a decisive role when it comes to political decision-making and governance. We are fortunate, as the Hungarian people have a unified opinion of the importance of family; we are a very fam­ily-focused nation that cares for its children. As evidenced by research, family and home are more important for Hungarians than other areas of life, such as work, free time, or friendships. In addition, family is the most important scene for national solidarity. In its opinion of the role of family as a community, Hungarian society also stands out when com­pared to other European countries. It should be added that these facts hold true not only for the older generation; young people have a similarly positive attitude toward family life and having children. In this light it can be stated that it is our duty to create a supportive background that falls in line with this. This is our duty, even if in this rapidly changing world there are many challenges, and many people who say that family is declining and marriage has lost its importance. With all our strength, we support family communities, because we know that, for the majority of society, family is still the most important point of reference. Family is not an abstract concept. It is real and always timely, because it stems from the nature of human beings to desire family. This desire is independent of sex, culture, or historical era.

We are convinced that the individual should be seen through his or her relations with others, because humans are social beings. As our Fundamental Law says: “We hold that individual freedom can only be complete in cooperation with others.” We see the human being as a par­ent, child, husband, or grandparent who has specific duties and roles within the family, and not as a separate being. It is our relations that define us socially. “Individuals” stand alone and need to achieve their goals for and by themselves, while “family members” stand for their communities. There is a major difference between these two attitudes. Therefore, we are convinced that the basic unity of a society is not in the individual but in the family. It is within families that the functions of mothers and fathers can evolve.

Our interpretation of the role of the state can also evolve. We think that the most important role of the state is to serve public good through political measures. It is also important to make distinctions between the responsibilities of the person, the family, the community, and the state. There are certain duties which should be fulfilled by family members and the community, not the state. The state cannot and should not replace the role of parents when raising children, family members when fulfilling family roles, or churches when building communities. The government should create the framework necessary for these entities to prosper, keep the rules respected, and intervene when necessary. Raising children is the life-long responsibility of parents, and should be preserved as such.

The Spirit and Goals of Hungary’s Family Support System

It is indeed our belief that a precondition of the medium- and long-term social development of Hungary is a turn in demographic trends. In Hungary, just as in most European nations, we face a severe demographic challenge. Hungary’s population has been decreasing continuously since 1981. In the last 35 years, it has decreased by almost 10%. A major chal­lenge of the coming years is to use efficient tools to counterbalance drastic population decline and the phenomenon of an ageing society that occurs in parallel. Given the current demographic conditions, Hungarian popu­lation may decline from 9,850,000 to 7,206,000 by 2060.

Given the situation described above, a prioritized goal of the Hungarian government is to effectuate a sustainable demographic turn and—linked to it—a comprehensive change of perspective, focused on healthy and strong families. To this end, in 2010 we began work on the establishment of a society based on families and work. We formulated our social policy measures along these principles. The amount of financial supports granted to families grows year by year. Our in-cash expenditure related to family policy tripled between 2010 and 2016. We have set up and are operating a family policy system that is capable of meeting vari­ous demands simultaneously and has a financial and symbolic incentive power. It is our firm belief that an ideal family policy is flexible, stable, complex, and targeted. Such a policy should also respond to changing conditions and should be predictable. Thus, it is able to create a safe envi­ronment for families.

Another pillar for the implementation of the demographic turn is a society based on work. As our Fundamental Law says: “We hold that the strength of community and the honour of each man are based on labour, an achievement of the human mind.” People tend to dedicate themselves to starting a family once they feel that predictable conditions and proper financial resources are available. Therefore, those conditions must be created that help young persons who still do not have children arrive at such dedication. International experience corroborates this fact, showing that the birth rate is growing in those countries where the state—beside encouraging employment—pays great attention to the reconciliation of professional and family life, and makes attempts to create flexible condi­tions. In Hungary, the dual-earner family model is the most common, which means that both members of couples take part in the maintenance of the household.

In Hungary, parents have freedom of choice when deciding upon family management. Parents (mostly mothers) may benefit from a three-year-long parental leave while being covered by the social-security sys­tem and also getting child-care benefits. Women can also choose to work while raising children. We must facilitate women meeting both of these demands, family and employment. At the same time, it must be taken into consideration that it is particularly difficult for women with children to perform equally well in both fields. We think that it is an important task of the state to recognize that looking after the family and children while working efficiently in the labor market presupposes an extra per­formance. Therefore, in this respect, too, we attempted to create condi­tions that are aligned to changes, and recognize performance at work and at home alike.

As evident from the above, our objectives are extremely diversified, yet all of them serve a single purpose, namely, the implementation of a family-friendly social policy. The generous family policy benefits and allowances form its core. Beside financial support, this policy includes institutional developments, such as measures taken to improve day care for children and employment policy incentives. We have also introduced several other measures that support starting a family or otherwise make life easier for families with young children.

In terms of starting a family, a key factor is to have a home of an adequate size. In this field, we launched the most significant housing support program of the last 25 years. It is intended to exercise its effects in two ways. With the introduction of the Family Housing Allowance (Hungarian abbreviation: CSOK) scheme we attempt, on the one hand, to ensure that the lack of an adequate home does not prevent individu­als from having children, and, on the other hand, to allow for economic recovery through the construction sector. The measure is complex; it consists of various elements. For large families, the major element is that, in the case of purchasing or constructing a new flat, they are eligible to apply for a non-refundable support of $33,000 and for a loan of an extra $33,000 at a discounted rate. In addition, during the construction process, families may recover the amount of VAT up to HUF (Hungary Forint) $16,000, while a preferential VAT rate (5%) continues to be imposed on the prices of construction materials. Taking into account the real-estate market in Hungary, with this financial assistance, a young couple ready to have at least three children in the next ten years is able to buy an apart­ment or house without any of their own contribution. Another pillar of the housing allowance program is the National Community for Homes (Hungarian abbreviation: NOK), which functions as a community fund­ing model and whose objective is to give members of the community access to new immovable properties within a short period of time.

The recognition of work is also served by our tax base reduction mea­sure; previously, political decision-makers failed to support the extension of the measure. This was what we had to change in order to reduce the burden of those citizens who decide to have children. In recent years, the number of those eligible for a family tax allowance has been increased considerably. Currently—as a result of a major extension of scope—the state offers, through the taxation system, significant financial help to families (from families with one child to large families). The properly targeted nature of the measure is shown by the fact that it reaches 94% of families. This measure ensures that Hungarian large families wherein both parents earn an average wage do not pay any personal income taxes.

Hungary’s family policy, thanks to its complexity, assists families in various ways, but always takes into consideration that these are the parents with young children who must have the opportunity to make deci­sions that are best for their families. Besides dual-earner households, we also devote our efforts to families where one of the parents (in most cases, the mother) decides to stay at home to raise the children. Our main task is to try and offer each family the opportunity that is most suitable for them in terms of raising their children.

The Job Protection Action as a key measure within our labor market must also be mentioned. It is a complex measure that, in the case of the employment of persons belonging to groups that are the most vulnerable in terms of employment (e.g. women with young children), reduces the wage costs to be paid by the employer. This measure also contributes to the preservation of jobs, but the key objective is to include women with young children as extensively as possible, as well as to offer them oppor­tunities to return to the labor market.

In our opinion, it is important for the pension system to recognise women’s increased share of the social burden. Our Women40 measure serves various goals. First, it enables women who performed their duties at work and at home alike to retire from the labor market once their eli­gibility period expires, even if they have not yet reached the pensionable age. Another evident objective of the decision-makers was to strengthen cooperation between generations, as women who retire in this manner will have the opportunity to participate in caring for grandchildren or even their elderly parents. If grandparents assist in caring for their grand­children, the parents will have the opportunity to continue the profes­sional career they started before the children were born. Hitherto, a total of 186,000 women have used this option.

A better reconciliation of professional and family duties called for the development of day-care institutions for children. We increased the number of places available in day nurseries and kindergartens, as the proper availability of institutional care for young children is a key factor that determines how individuals time their return to the labor market after their children are born. Furthermore, we have initiated a reform of the system, whose objective is to ensure that it is basically the parents’ demands that define the way institutions operate.

The well-being of families and children is a particularly important goal of our family policy. The options for child catering (meals for chil­dren) free of charge or at a reduced price have continuously improved. This is demonstrated by the fact that in recent years we have increased the state expenditure for child catering by more than two times. In Hungary, the rate of children receiving meals free of charge in day nurs­eries and kindergartens is currently over 80%. The development of the catering program, however, needed to be extended to the quality of food as well, because surveys show that we have every reason to pay atten­tion to children’s health. The persistence of children’s poor eating habits would result in an extremely unfavorable public-health impact in the long run. With this in mind, we introduced major reforms and moderni­sation in the catering system of educational institutions, so that children are offered more fresh fruit, vegetables, dairy products, and whole-grain bread products.

The diversity of our family policy profile is reflected in our highly successful social holiday scheme targeted specifically at children, large families, persons with disabilities, and retired persons. Our Erzsébet Programme, a unique scheme in Europe, reaches a very large number of citizens. Since its introduction in 2012, 800,000 persons (including 400,000 children) used the opportunity to have holidays or participate in summer camp programs at a very limited price. Keeping the present framework but taking the possibilities of extension into consideration, we wish to develop the program further, as it provides special experience to more and more generations every year.

The supports, allowance, and cost-cutting measures specified above point in the same direction: the prosperity of families and, thus, the evo­lution of a stronger society. Still, we think that family policy is not simply the total of benefits offered; the establishment of a way of public thinking that focuses on families must be of equal significance. In this regard, we are working on the introduction of a family-friendly quality to workplaces, public institutions such as places of education and the media, and to the country as a whole.

As for awareness-raising, our work is supported mainly by NGOs and churches. Since 2010, the government has supported or organized several programs aimed at the importance of a family-friendly attitude. Since 2011, through calls for tenders and individual support, the govern­ment has involved social actors in the popularization of a family-friendly approach, the restoration of family-friendly public thinking and practice, and the building of families’ communities. In this spirit, several calls for tenders have been published. The tenders focused on the support of educational and training programs—more specifically, series of lectures and communication programs aimed at preparing young people for the choice of a partner, marriage, and family life. The Family-Friendly Workplace Prize is intended to encourage employers to create “parent-focused” environments for working mothers and fathers, thus ensuring a proper balance of private life and professional life.

The supportive and family-friendly political measures of recent years have brought very promising results. In 2010, data on the willingness of Hungarian people to start a family and have children gave rise to serious concern. Our primary objective is to ensure that those Hungarian citizens who desire to have children will not face any constraints. In this field, our greatest success is the rise of the total fertility rate from the critical 1.23 of 2011 to 1.48 in 2016. The total fertility rate had not been that high since 1996. Another favorable development is that between 2010 and 2015 the number of abortions decreased by 23%. We are particularly pleased that there were favorable changes in the lack of willingness to marry, as evi­denced by the fact that the number of weddings was almost 50% higher in 2016 than in 2010. This clearly demonstrates that the institution of marriage continues to be very popular among young people. We hope that this may bring about a future increase of the birth rate.

The positive demographic indicators are to be interpreted as a com­bined effect of family policy measures and constructive employment policy initiatives. Recent years have seen a rapid increase of female partici­pation in the labour market, which justifies the support of the dual-earner family model and of our family-friendly initiatives (more specifically, the creation of flexible conditions that are becoming more widespread or the support of the balance of family and professional life). The current rate of female employment (almost 60%) is to be regarded as a major success; in Hungary, the rate has not been that high since the time of the democratic transition.

In Hungary, we will continue to focus on family values, and we are ready to represent these values in international discussions as well, where basic principles are often the target of various attacks.

In May 2017, the Hungarian government, in cooperation with Hungarian and international NGOs, is organizing a series of events in favor of a family-oriented approach. Between May 25-28, 2017, we invite those interested to the Budapest Demographic Forum II; to the World Congress of Families, Budapest; to the One of Us Forum; and to the Family Festival on Sunday. Our motto is: Building Family-Friendly Nations, Making Families Strong Again!

Katalin Novák is Minister of state for Family, Youth and International Affairs, Ministry of Human Capacities, Hungary