WASHINGTON, D.C. — Politicians across the world and across the ideological spectrum like to invoke “family values” when talking about education, the welfare system, taxes and pretty much anything else.
But how many of them actually put their money where their mouths are?
The current Hungarian government under Prime Minister Viktor Orban prides itself on its conservative platform — low immigration, lots of incentives for marriage and families, and promotion of the nation’s Judeo-Christian heritage whenever possible.
Some have panned this as “right-wing nationalism,” but the administration is touting the strong family outcomes that have taken hold over the near-decade it has been in power — marriage is significantly up, abortion and divorce are significantly down, and the total fertility rate is approaching numbers not seen in the East European state since the 1990s.
The policies that Orban’s government claims are responsible for these gains include the Family Housing Allowance Program, which gives hefty housing grants to couples with children, and a series of tax reforms instituted in 2011 and 2012 that also incentivize having kids. Both of these programs turn up the dial on aid as a couple has more children.
Additionally, a new constitution adopted in 2011 had language specifically defending traditional marriage and family creation, including: “We hold that the family and the nation constitute the principal framework for our coexistence” and “Hungary shall protect the institution of marriage as the union of a man and a woman.”
So just how much of Hungary’s family renaissance can be attributed to these political and cultural moves?
In a March 14 interview with Catholic News Service in Washington, Katalina Novak, Hungarian minister of state for family, seemed confident that many of the positive outcomes can be traced at least in part to policy.
Novak was first asked about marriage in Hungary, which in 2012 began rising sharply for women of almost any age, according to data from the U.S.-based Institute for Family Studies. For example, women 20-24 years of age had a marriage rate that was falling from the 1990s all the way to 2010 before picking up in 2014.
“Marriage is the first step toward having a family,” Novak said, adding that in conjunction with policy the numbers “very much (show) the commitment of young people” in Hungary.
Novak emphasized the change in governing philosophies that took place several years ago probably had something to do with it, explaining that “between 2002 and 2010 … when there was a left-liberal government in Hungary … we saw a drop by 23 percent in the number of marriages. … Since 2010, we have been in a governmental position … it increased by almost half.”
Novak does seem to be right about marriage, but on the issue of childbirth some data suggest that the government programs may be approaching the point of diminishing returns. According to statistics collected from the Hungarian Central Statistical Office by the Institute for Family Studies, Hungary’s total fertility rate began to plateau in 2016, though it is far higher than it was pre-2010.
Novak stressed that “there is no real method to study all the consequences of one measure we used,” but held firm that the government can only be helping people to achieve the government’s desired outcomes, specifically with regard to the tax system.
“Our principle is that we give Hungarian people the possibility to work … we give the possibility … to have a decent job, a decent salary, and to keep most of this salary for the family. …That’s what our tax system is about,” she said, adding that “the more children you have, the less tax you pay.”
When asked about abortion and divorce, Novak also was optimistic, noting that they had decreased by 33 percent and 23 percent, respectively, since her party has been in power.
But here, she broke from talking about financial incentives and began describing her government’s efforts to affirm the religious culture of Hungary’s people, saying this was part and parcel of making those outcomes a reality.
“The role of religious groups in Hungary … is more and more important,” said Novak, explaining that the government actively provides aid to these sorts of institutions: “For example, that means that we give financial support so that churches or religious groups can run schools.”
These and public schools serve as the venue for a new curriculum the Hungarian government has put into place, which requires that students study either secular or religious ethics.
Hungary also now has pro-life measures for which religious people the world over have fought. According to Novak: “We have, for example, mandatory consultation for mothers or those who are bound to have an abortion, two times. That is something we introduced.”
And Novak claims that the Hungarian people always were eminently religious and pro-life, but are just getting more help from the government nowadays.
“I don’t like to call it a (cultural) change,” she said. “Hungarian people have always been very family oriented.”
Andor Banyai, a resident of a small village in Hungary, spoke with CNS March 21 about the effects of the government programs on his family. He and his wife had just welcomed their third child into the world.
He explained that his burgeoning family needs bigger digs and the Family Housing Allowance Program puts a more substantial house within his reach. “We live in a little flat … we had two kids but we wanted more … in this program we can get 10 million (forint) (US$35,800) for a new house,” Banyai said. He noted that his new child would give the family 1 million extra forint, the country’s currency, in benefits.
Overall, Banyai thinks of the program as “very good” for his family.