In his 2017 book The Strange Death of Europe, Douglas Murray remarked on an odd phenomenon. Despite steep demographic decline, he observed, most British women—and many Europeans—indicated a desire for more children than they were having. In fact, in some nations, population declines could be reversed simply by women having the children they claimed to want. So why is demographic decline going on largely unchecked? Murray and many others have wrestled with this question.
The Hungarian government of Viktor Orbán, who has served as prime minister since 2010, is betting that state intervention can tip the scales and reverse the trends. Like nearly every other nation in Europe, Hungary has been facing a steep demographic decline since 1981. Katalin Novák, the 43-year-old minister for families and vice president of the governing Fidesz party, says that the government first began to experiment with national family policy when they determined, early in their mandate, that popular support for such policies existed.
One of the key problems, Novák told me in an interview, was the state of marriage. In most developed countries, the popularity of marriage is evaporating—in Hungary, the number of marriages dropped 23 percent between 2002 and 2010. In response, she says, the government decided to support and incentivize marriage “because marriage is a more secure place for child-bearing.” The experiment worked, and the trend was reversed. Since 2012, the number of marriages in Hungary has doubled.
“In our basic family law in 2011, there are fundamental pro-life and pro-family principles,” Novák explained. “That means that, for example, we put in our constitution 10 years ago that life begins at conception and the life of the fetus should be protected.” Marriage has been explicitly defined as between one man and one woman by mutual consent. Hungary, incidentally, has consistently taken fire from progressives for enshrining a legal definition of the family.
National family policy, however, doesn’t come cheap. “We have to invest a lot of money to build a family-friendly environment,” Novák told me. “We treat this as an investment. We invest over 5 percent of our GDP for family support right now in our actual budget. That’s really a huge amount of money. The defense expenses in most countries are lower than 2 percent.”
Despite this, the Hungarian government works hard to ensure that families don’t bear the brunt of this cost. “Our tax system is very family-friendly,” Novák explained. “The more children you have, the less personal income tax you pay. From January 1, 2020, mothers with at least four children have a full exemption from personal income tax. They don’t pay personal income taxes ever in their lives.” Additionally, from January 1, 2022, young people under 25 will receive a full exemption from income tax. Everyone else pays a flat tax of 15 percent, which is reduced based on the number of children you have.
Some policies could prove transferable to other Western nations. “If a woman has a student loan, once that woman is going to have children, we decrease the student loan,” Novák told me. “For the first child, we postpone the payment for three years. For the second child we decrease the loan by 50 percent; for the third child, we totally write off the loan. That means she doesn’t have to pay back her student loan. This could be popular in the U.S.; it is popular in Hungary.”
There’s more: a home-building subsidy; three-year paid maternity leave; expanded childcare; free or discounted summer camps for children. Newly married couples can get an interest-free loan of USD 30,000, which comes with a three-year extension after the first child, a 30 percent reduction after the second, and total forgiveness after the third. There’s also mortgage assistance that allows young couples to get a head start without needing massive savings or family help.
All of these policies, says Novák, are oriented towards building a “family-friendly Hungary. You need a family-friendly approach all over. If you treat those who have children with respect and you make them feel that they are valuable and that their contribution to our future is valued, you encourage their dreams of having a family. I think these policies are conservative.”
In short, Hungary is not attempting to implement a welfare state and government institutions that replace the family or the role of mother or father—in fact, their constitution emphasizes that the responsibility for raising children is that of the parents. There is a difference, Novák says, between Hungary’s family polices and social policies. Social policies are focused on the impoverished and aimed at providing possibilities for the poor. Family polices are for everyone. This is not a social safety net—it is a government-wide orientation towards family. Working is a precondition for government assistance.
“We cannot and should not take over this responsibility of the parents,” Novák emphasized. “What we do in Hungary, and what we recommend, is decreasing or eliminating the disadvantages of those who are having children. All over the developed world, those who are having children are in a less beneficial situation than those who aren’t. We want to eliminate these disadvantages.” The Hungarian government seeks to enable families rather than supplant them as so many progressive governments wish to do.
That said, all children and all parents receive support regardless of family structure. “Once a child is born, we don’t differentiate between married couples and unmarried couples, or even single parents,” said Novák. “Once you have a child, then no matter whether you’re a single mother or father, you are eligible for family benefits.”
Orbán’s government has also made enormous progress reducing the number of abortions. It is an almost totally unremarked on fact that where a massive disparity exists between the number of children women say they want and the number of children they actually have, the mythical “unwanted child” of Planned Parenthood’s advertising does not exist. Rather, it is far more likely that many women are having unwanted abortions—terminations they would not have if their economic circumstances were different. One effect of Hungary’s policies has been a steep decline in the abortion rate—according to Novák, a drop of up to 40 percent.
“It’s never low enough unless it’s zero, but it is a decreasing number,” she told me. “The possibility of real choice is a value.” This, ironically, is a pro-choice position backed up by a commitment to eliminate unwanted abortions through genuine support rather than simply funneling taxpayer dollars to Big Abortion, the preferred policy of many progressives.
For many young people, the modern economy has laid out a familiar path: go to university, struggle to get a good job in your field, claw your way up the ladder and then, maybe, attempt to have a child later in life, when fertility problems are likely and big families are not. Anyone who prefers this path can still take it if they wish, Novák points out. Nobody has to get married or have children. But if you want a family, the government is attempting to ensure that you can do so with both respect and financial incentives.
For now, Hungary appears to have reversed the trends. The marriage rate is up; the abortion rate is down, as is the childbearing age. Hungary’s fertility rate is also improving. After hitting its lowest point in 2011, it has been increasing year over year for a total increase of over 24 percent. This is obviously not entirely due to Hungary’s family policies, which began that same year, but these policies have certainly helped. Hungary’s government, says Novák, has gambled on the long game. Most politicians dislike long-term policies without short-term success or even a guarantee of long-term success, but Novák believes this is dangerously short-sighted.
“Having children is a decision for a lifetime,” she told me. “It’s not four years or eight. It’s for a lifetime.” Children represent national security and a national future. As such, family policy is worth it. Novák and her colleagues are the sort of conservatives who know what they wish to conserve—and are willing to forgo feigned economic neutrality to privilege the families that ensure their nation’s survival. It is a compelling project—and Western nations should be watching it with interest.
Jonathon Van Maren is a public speaker, writer, and pro-life activist. His commentary has appeared in National Review, The European Conservative, the National Post, and elsewhere. Jonathon is the author of The Culture War and Seeing Is Believing: Why Our Culture Must Face the Victims of Abortion as well as the co-author with Blaise Alleyne of A Guide to Discussing Assisted Suicide.