When you step off the plane at Budapest’s Ferenc Liszt International Airport, the jet bridge greets you with something unusual by American standards. Instead of the usual walls of advertisements for profit-padding airline credit cards, the panels bear an illustration of a three-child family (with a mother and a father) above the title “Family-Friendly Hungary.”
Budapest’s effort to win the attention of American conservatives is no secret. But at the recently concluded fourth biennial Budapest Demographic Summit, it became evident that a broader political realignment around family policy is now underway. As one of only a few Americans at the summit, here is what I think American conservatives should take away.
Only two years ago, it was rare to hear conservatives imagine what large-scale governmental support for the family would look like. Anglo-American conservatives have typically emphasized slogans like “less government, more responsibility,” assuming a kind of inverse relationship between the two forces. On a practical level, such concerns are warranted. Government programs are often hastily designed and pulled in conflicting directions by parties without a stake in their success.
Conservatives increasingly recognize, however, that the market alone has little interest in preserving family life as they have known it. While American conservatives used to think that government was the primary corrodent of family values, there is no reason to assume that state force is intrinsically more dangerous than market forces. When the ideal consumer is childless and lonely, it is time for conservatives to be much more pragmatic.
What is clear from last month’s summit is that a growing number of political leaders are thinking the same way. For many of them, family policy is not a “right-wing” political idea per se. Rather, it offers a positive and compelling vision for government, and a natural home for conservatives of all stripes.
Reading the Tea Leaves
With the 2021 edition of the Budapest Demographic Summit, Hungary now has ten years of family policy under its belt. I reviewed the top-line evidence for Hungary’s initial successes in turning around its demographic decline for Public Discourse earlier this year, but the theme of the Demographic Summit was not so much wonkish policy debate as the celebration of family life itself.
Held in Budapest’s Várkert Bazár—a beautifully restored neo-Renaissance castle on the banks of the Danube—the summit filled the space between the usual speeches and panels with showcases of traditional Hungarian dances and folk music. In one performance, a few traditionally dressed Hungarian singers were steadily joined by instrumentalists and dancers young and old, before Katalin Novák, Hungary’s minister for family affairs, revealed that the dozens of musicians were all from one extraordinary extended family.
The political significance of the Demographic Summit was to be found elsewhere. When the first Demographic Summit was held in 2015, only the Hungarian government provided official representation. This time, Hungary was joined by official representation from six other E.U. governments, including Italy, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia, plus (from outside the European Union) Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as Serbia. With official interest in family policy from one quarter of European member states, it’s clear that attention to the issue is increasing.
It’s no surprise that countries that have suffered population declines are growing interested in family policy. Just as striking, in a different way, was the participation of two potential French presidential contenders. Marion Maréchal, the dynamic French conservative who stepped away from politics in 2017, gave a plenary address contrasting two visions of society: “There is a fundamental combat in European society,” she said, “between those who consider the individual as the core of society, and those who consider the family as the heart of society, realizing an essential element of the common good.” Éric Zemmour, the French polemicist now polling 13 percent in the 2022 elections without having declared a candidacy, pleaded for governments “to turn all our resources toward promoting the family.”
Most telling from an American standpoint was the presence of Mike Pence. The former vice president is hardly one to test the outer extremes of policy, and his attention suggests the possibility of a new consensus around the central importance of family in policy development. Politicians such as Mitt Romney have tilted toward family policy as an intelligent way of pivoting federal programs to positive ends. But politicians on a more populist line also need something positive to offer their constituents. What exactly would it mean for family policy to be a comprehensive goal, other than the obvious increase in fiscal support for families?
The Most Personal Public Matter
To grasp what it means for family policy to be an orienting goal, it is useful to step outside of the headline numbers of family policy in Hungary, and its well-known commitment to spending 5 percent of GDP on families. The message communicated by the Demographic Summit was that family policy could form a reasonable centerpiece of conservative governance for the next generation—and that there is nothing extreme, “far-right,” or strange about it.
Most debates along these lines among American conservatives have turned on whether to launch national spending programs, and, if so, whether they can engage large-scale deficit spending or must be framed as some form of mutual insurance or be deficit-neutral. But what it means for family policy to become an orienting goal is something much deeper—such that the commitment to family policy, and its spread across numerous areas of family life, makes the exact spending level of less importance. When family policy becomes the centerpiece of governing, it shifts from being a sectoral policy—a thing “over there” to be given periodic support when funds allow—to being an essential piece of economic activities across all sectors.
Hungary’s policy illustrates how this approach can unfold. According to legislation Hungary passed in 2011, “Family protection and the reinforcement of family welfare is a task shared by the state, local governments, non-governmental organisations, media providers, and businesses, . . . [as well as] from Churches.” In this conception, the development of families is not merely a private matter, but the “most personal public matter.”
From the state perspective, Hungary’s family policy system is spread across a number of different programs that increase the number of touch points between families and state support. At a base level, Hungary’s family policy system affords a maternity allowance, an infant care allowance in the first months, a childcare allowance for caregivers of young children, a childcare benefit and, at a lesser level but over subsequent years, a child-rearing benefit.
The theory behind the variety of benefits allows Hungary’s family policy to be adapted to specific goals: a benefits cliff at age three encourages mothers to reenter the workplace, for example, or to have more children. But the variety of benefits also creates an array of contact points that make the policy part of everyday life.
The Visibility of Family Policy
American conservatives should consider all the touch points—both economic and political—that a comprehensive family policy can provide. Hungarian policy, for example, includes a “Women 40” benefit that offers retirement at full pension benefit after 40 years of employment. The state also subsidizes a Baby Bond, with a starter deposit made by the government at birth, with a 3 percent interest rate above inflation and an additional annual subsidy. In the last few years, a new grandparents benefit has been introduced for grandparents caring for under-twos—paying out at 70 percent a grandparent’s prior income. Such a move is not only generous but politically savvy, as well.
Since family formation is also “home formation,” the early emphasis of Hungary’s policy focused on repatriating home mortgages that were denominated in foreign currencies, especially in the Swiss franc, which had steadily risen against the Hungarian forint. Beginning in 2013 and 2014, Hungary also introduced utility cost reductions to make home life more affordable for families. Early measures also included modifications to the labor code to facilitate part-time employment of parents of small children—already a common practice elsewhere in Europe that could also be better facilitated by law in the United States.
Since 2015, a Home Purchase Subsidy has aimed at incentivizing home formation at increasing amounts based on the number of children. In 2021, a family with three dependent children purchasing a home of at least 1,000 square feet receives a $33,000 subsidy (in a country where housing prices are far below the U.S. average). In addition to the direct subsidy, the policy also offers subsidized home mortgage loans (of approximately $50,000 for a family with three children).
Pro-family education has been steadily incorporated into schooling on the basis of a kind of integralist cooperation with churches. Parents of children in public schools may opt for a standard curriculum emphasizing moral education and the family, or religious curricula authorized by ecclesiastical bodies. Policy also emphasizes providing free textbooks to students as well as more nutritious food, and even a program to provide subsidized holiday vacations to underprivileged students—all with the goal of making family life more affordable.
Although American conservatives have succeeded in establishing an alternative infrastructure of private classical and religious schools, the Hungarian approach emphasized shifting public education in a pro-family direction. Doing so in the United States certainly seems like a monumental task. The movement against critical race theory is widespread and important—but almost entirely focused on a negative point. Successful politics needs a positive focus and a vision of what could be. Hungary’s educational integralism is just that—and Americans should pay attention.
Student loan forgiveness is another area that a family policy program can take back from the left. Since 2018 in Hungary, a first-time mother with student loan debt can suspend repayment for three years; half the debt is remitted with a second child, and the entirety with a third. Mothers of four children receive a personal tax exemption for their entire lives; and all families are receiving a personal tax exemption for 2021.
Beginning in 2017, Hungary’s government also began to organize other institutions of civil society in a pro-family direction. 2018 became the “Year of Families,” and a new series of family festivals were launched around major holidays. New think tanks and organizations were founded with an explicitly pro-family state mandate, including the Mária Kopp Institute for Demography and Families as well as the Family-Friendly Hungary brand. An array of organizations cater to different types of families, including a large families’ association, one for young families, and another for single parents. In something that would be unthinkable in the United States, mayors of cities actually compete for the Pro-Family Municipality Prize, which is now awarded in several categories. A family-friendly tourism certification is issued, and employers can compete for the Family-Friendly Workplace Prize. As if that weren’t enough, a Family-Friendly Place Certification designates family-friendly service providers.
Family Policy and Effective Politics
Criticism of the Demographic Summit from Western liberals has vacillated between dismissing it as a public relations stunt and suggesting that it is little more than a conventicle of “far-right” politicians. But the reality of family policy is much more straightforward.
Conservative politicians have pledged their rhetorical support for families for generations, but in the United States and western Europe the right has struggled to find a compelling governing framework or message around which to build an array of related policies. When Trump came to power in 2017, his initial moves were reactionary anti-immigration executive actions that sated his television audience but delivered no material benefits to the “swing vote” families that would prove pivotal in 2020.
Tough as it is for many conservatives to admit, the lot fell to Mitt Romney and Joe Biden to announce robust pro-family policies at the beginning of 2021. However far the rest of the president’s policy commitments may be from supporting the traditional family, Biden rapidly turned the Child Tax Credit into a tangible monthly payment that every parent can receive and deposit physically (or by direct deposit, for those who prefer). While Republicans had debated the most fiscally “responsible” ways of directing support to families, Biden short-circuited the discussion by delivering ordinary families a monthly check with his name on it.
The symbolism of Pence’s speech in Budapest was clear. Given the Trump administration’s lack of vision about the centrality of family policy, Pence’s presence at the Demographic Summit also marked a shift on the right. Since Anglo-American conservatism has traditionally downplayed the role of the state, using the government to promote families seemed to many to be too much of a “top-down” activity. After years in which reference to the example of central European family policy was seen as a step too far, the former vice president appeared alongside regional political leaders and commended Hungary’s commitment to families.
Shifting family policy from being a limited sectoral interest to being the sine qua non of evaluating decisions opens up new avenues for linking family policy to successful political campaigning. For several generations, American conservatives have traded on nostalgic memories of the 1950s as a picture of what society could be like before the revolution of the 1960s. But aside from all the problems with that picture, it offers little assistance in determining the proper path for conservative policy.
What is becoming clear is that family policy is not merely about government policy toward families. It is about orienting political, economic, and educational decision-making in a direction that recognizes successful families as the moving engine in every part of society. To unlock that vision, American conservatives will have to picture how a pro-family approach can cooperate with the state and private institutions and project itself through business, society, and, yes, even bureaucracy. Thankfully for us, the example is already being set.
Gladden Pappin is a visiting senior fellow at the Mathias Corvinus Collegium in Budapest, on leave from the University of Dallas. He is also the founding deputy editor of American Affairs.