🌈 Getting paid to have children: Hungary’s ‘carefare’ regime

Illiberal Hungary has become famous in recent years for paying families to have, or pledge to have, children. This, writes Eva Fodor, has transformed the criteria and practice for social citizenship and democratic participation

Over the past decade, Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán appears to have realised an old feminist dream: state-sponsored remuneration of women’s (previously unpaid) childcare. Women – or families, to be more precise – are now receiving significant sums of government money for having and raising children. During pandemic lockdowns, the state publicly applauded women for their devotion to childcare. And Hungary's politicians regularly highlight the challenges and importance of childcare, and women’s skills and responsibility in this field.

Since the mid-2010s, the Hungarian government has introduced a long line of policies offering grants and loans to parents and would-be parents. Those who have, or pledge to have, children, are eligible for a baby grant of 10 million forints (roughly five years’ minimum wage). Families who choose to have three or more children can access especially generous tax breaks and highly subsidised mortgages. The amounts available through these channels would be beyond the normal reach of lower- and lower middle-class couples at the beginning of their careers.

These are just a handful of the many financial benefits that accrue to those raising children. Others range from discounts on basic administrative services, to entrance fees to entertainment venues, to subsidised loans for buying SUVs and renovating apartments. Parental leave is also especially generous in Hungary. Once they have children, new parents can stay at home for a maximum of three years on full pay. Alternatively, they can return to work part time or full time, while retaining their parental allowance.

Yet, this is no feminist dream

The eligibility criteria mean that only heterosexual, married couples can access the most generous of these benefits. To qualify for the full tax break or loans and mortgages, at least one, but in most cases both, members of a couple must be in employment. To be eligible for many of these benefits, women must be under 40 years of age. And those on minimum wage do not earn enough legally recorded income to access all available benefits.

Only heterosexual, married women aged under 40 and earning above the minimum wage can access the most generous of Hungary's childcare benefits

This means that people living in non-traditional families, those raising children alone, those who are older parents or who are simply not in well-paid jobs all find themselves excluded from at least parts of the childcare benefit system. Hungary's childcare benefits are masquerading as welfare rights. But to be truly universal, they should be available to everyone raising children. Under the current arrangements, not all families – and not all children – count.

It's just politics, right?

It is easy to dismiss the above policies as just another manifestation of right-wing populism designed to win votes. This, however, does not do justice to its complexity. First, it is no accident that many illiberal democracies have embraced pronatalist policies. Russia has introduced several such elements, as has Poland under its PiS government. In these increasingly or fully undemocratic countries, 'selective pronatalism' is tied closely to an exclusionary reconceptualisation of nationhood and citizenship, the very foundations of illiberal political regimes.

In Hungary, pronatalist political discourse is historically linked with the looming possibility of the death of the Hungarian nation. Its modern-day equivalent under Viktor Orbán builds on this image, but simultaneously redefines Hungarian citizenship as inclusive only of middle-class white people in families prescribed by carefully selected Catholic doctrines, in sharp contrast with darker-skinned, non-Christian migrants. By so doing he justifies, and indeed normalises, homophobia and xenophobia. Early feminists dared to dream that placing greater value on care work might bring about a more inclusive society. Under Orbán, the (selective) promotion of (selective forms of) care work have instead resulted in the persecution of those who do not fit the prescribed mould.

The basic assumption of pronatalist policies in Hungary is that women simultaneously work outside the home while raising children

In addition, the basic assumption of pronatalist policies in Hungary is that women simultaneously work outside the home while raising children. There have been no state-sanctioned efforts to redistribute childcare and domestic chores more equitably within the household. This combination is thus bound to increase women’s overall work time and exploitation. Mothers are expected to labour for meagre wages in underpaid mommy-track jobs while taking care of an increasing number of children. This is the consequence of Hungary’s new pronatalist social policies for many women. Feminists who promoted wages for care work will be turning in their graves.

A novel logic of social citizenship

Hungary’s radical pronatalist policies, which aimed to achieve replacement-level fertility, have been in effect for almost a decade now. Their impact on the birth rate, however, has fallen way short of expectation. This is not surprising: demographers, even the prime minister’s own advisors, had already warned about this in the policies' design phase. The fact that this was clear from the start suggests that more is at stake than simply a desire for a more robust, more white nation.

Hungary’s pronatalist policies have been in effect for almost a decade. Their impact on the birth rate, however, has fallen way short of expectation

The new direction of Hungary’s social policies transforms the meaning of social citizenship, the impact of which is hard to overestimate. Under state socialism, people in Hungary claimed social citizenship in Hungary on the basis of social insurance and universal entitlements. Post-state socialist policy reformers decreed that one should claim social citizenship on the basis of need and means tests. Since 2010, social citizenship now accrues to those who take on childcare responsibilities; it is on this basis that citizens can claim social benefits in their most legitimate and generous forms. Following the logic of the concept of 'workfare', I call Hungary a 'carefare' state: care is the new principle of democratic participation.

Arguably, care is just as reasonable a basis for social citizenship as paid work, but the devil is in the detail. The way Hungary’s government defines this new framework is exclusionary, racist and homophobic. It promotes gender inequality, and puts strict restrictions on women’s (and to a lesser extent men’s) life choices. This is a disappointing example of how to include care work in the principles of citizenship and democratic participation.

No.18 in a Loop thread on Gendering Democracy. Look out for the 🌈 to read more in this series

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Author

photograph of Eva Fodor
Eva Fodor
Professor of Gender Studies, Central European University Vienna

Eva is a sociologist by training and persuasion, and has written two books and numerous articles on gender, labour markets, welfare states and illiberalism, with a focus on gender inequality in the post-state socialist region.

She is also involved in research on the domestic division of labour during the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as on questions related to labour control, workplace democracy, and the motherhood penalty in our post-pandemic world.

@EvaFodor_CEU

The Gender Regime of Anti-Liberal Hungary

The Gender Regime of Anti-Liberal Hungary
Palgrave MacMillan, 2022, open access
Analyses some of the critical and alarming social consequences of Hungary’s recent illiberal turn

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