We need to talk about Hungary

In Australia, as in other western countries, marriage rates have collapsed over the last fifty years or so, declining to less than half the level in 1970, with many of these being second or subsequent marriages for one or both people. Those who marry are doing so later, on average around 30-31 years old, not long before women’s fertility window begins to close. As in other countries, Australia’s fertility rate has fallen very far below replacement level, with long-term implications for the country.

Hungary’s government is controversial for various reasons; but one thing it seems to be doing right is to reverse the decline in fertility through carefully targeted policies involving financial incentives to marry and reproduce.

In this article, Harry Benson, a well-known British scholar on marriage and family life, explains why we need to talk about Hungary’s approach to reversing its sharp decline in fertility, and how this is connected to marriage.

Received wisdom in the West paints Hungary as a bogeyman. Mired in a war of words with the EU over its immigration and LGBT policies, Hungary appears out of step with modern liberal values. Those liberal values are rightly applauded for the way we no longer stigmatise divorce or those who choose to live differently. Yet those same liberal values have coincided with a gradual and destructive erosion of marriage, the keystone of family life. 

The erosion of marriage

Across the West, the proportion of families headed by married couples has fallen. In the UK, for example, marriage rates are now down by two thirds from their peak in the early 1970s. For the first time ever, last year just over half of all babies were born to parents who were not married. Given that being married is so strongly associated with better odds of staying together – across the income spectrum – it is no coincidence that rates of family breakdown are at historically high levels. One in four families are now headed by a lone parent and, according to new research from our Children’s Commissioner, nearly one in two children complete their schooling living in a household without both biological parents.  

Lone parents deserve praise for the heroic job they do on their own. But the hard reality is that parenting with one pair of hands is tough, often requires financial support from the state, and leaves a higher proportion of children less well equipped for adult life. Lone parenthood is rarely a lifestyle choice, for both parent and children alike. Among flawed human beings, marriage stacks the odds in favour of avoiding unnecessary breakdown. The result is that our liberal indifference to marriage is costing the taxpayer, families, couples and children.

Nearly one in two children complete their schooling living in a household without both biological parents.

Bucking the trend

It is here that Hungary has begun to buck the trend. During 2020, the first year of worldwide lockdowns, marriage rates fell in every single European country bar one. The average reduction in weddings either cancelled or postponed due to government restrictions ranged from 12% in Scandinavia, to 23% in Western Europe and 24% in Eastern Europe, to 42% in the Mediterranean countries. Yet in Hungary marriage rates actually rose by 3%. It may not be a lot but in the context of lockdown it is highly suggestive of a country swimming against the tide.  

Over the past decade, Hungary’s marriage rates have risen by 92% taking them from number 28 in Europe in 2010, almost at the bottom of the list, to number one in 2020. They will probably lose that position when some of those postponed weddings come back in other countries. But for all of those of us who want the best for couples and the best for our children, Hungary stands alone as an example that the tide can turn in favour of what works best. The inexorable decline of marriage is not inevitable. Regarding family policy at the very least, Hungary is quite the opposite of the bogeyman. Hungary is a bright shining beacon of hope.  

So how have they done it? 

The irony is that the main driver has not been a policy to boost marriage but a policy to boost fertility. Back in 2010, the incoming Orban government recognised that Hungarian fertility rates had fallen well below the level needed to maintain a stable population. To avoid population decline, the average woman needs to have 2.1 children: one boy, one girl and a bit more to account for those who don’t or can’t. EU fertility rates were already low at 1.6 but Hungary’s had fallen to 1.2. In the words of Katalin Novak, former families minister and now president, Hungary had faced a ‘demographic winter’ involving a decline of nearly one tenth of their population.

In response the government introduced a series of ‘family friendly’ policies aimed at supporting and encouraging families. Unlike in most other western countries, Hungary quite deliberately separated family policy from their social policy aimed at reducing poverty and supporting those on low income. They were able to do this because their internal surveys told them that most young Hungarians wanted bigger families, at least two children, but felt constrained from achieving this by lack of stability, housing and financial problems, and women’s career plans.  

The number of marriages per one thousand people in Europe in 2020. Source: Eurostat

The new policies included a family tax allowance which meant working families pay less income tax if they have two or three children and no income tax at all if they have four children or more. It also included a housing benefit scheme where families were given the equivalent of 30,000 Euros in cash provided they were buying or building a new property and raising up to three children.  

But here’s the marriage part. The housing benefit was available to all families with three existing children, whatever their marital status, but also to married couples who planned to have children at some stage in the future. The loan became repayable in part if they had only one or two children but was written off altogether once the third child was born. This was a huge financial incentive to be married rather than not married if you were planning to buy a new house.  

Two further loan schemes were added. The first was a 40,000 Euro loan for home improvements that was available to all parents with similar conditions and repayment terms. The second was a 25,000 Euro no-questions-asked loan available only to married couples aged between 18 and 40. Newlyweds also receive a small reduction in income tax for the two years after their wedding.  

The sceptic might argue that Hungarian family policy is bribing unhappy couples to get and stay married while they give birth to the children needed to write off these loans. My view is that this is inconsistent with research and human nature. My research on unhappy UK parents with young children shows that while the minority split up, the majority work things out and become happy. What they don’t do is stay trapped in an unhappy marriage. If couples were being forced to stay together for financial reasons in Hungary, we should see it in the divorce data. Data from Eurostat shows that while Hungarian marriage rates have doubled over the past decade, Hungarian divorce rates (rather than numbers) have changed little during the early years of marriage. The Hungarian government is indeed bribing couples to get and stay married and have bigger families. But this is a good thing, not a bad thing. 

Over the past decade, Hungary’s marriage rates have risen by 92% taking them from number 28 in Europe in 2010, almost at the bottom of the list, to number one in 2020.

Marriage and relationship stability

I have long argued that the psychology of marriage enhances stability. The act of marriage necessarily includes two key events that improve the odds of staying together. The first occurs when couples pop the question. Deciding to commit to one person means rejecting all the other possibilities. Consistency theory shows that when people make decisions, they raise the attractiveness of the choice they have made and lower the attractiveness of the choice they have rejected. This is especially true when potential choices are similar. In other words we justify to ourselves difficult and risky choices we make by making the gap more obvious. The second occurs when we announce our plan in front of friends and family and receive their affirmation and support. We have a lot more incentive to stick at a relationship and make it work when we’ve just stood up and told everybody about it than if nobody else knew. Of course cohabiting relationships can share these characteristics. But they are optional. In marriage they are automatically baked in.  

For these reasons, I believe that encouraging more couples to marry will necessarily bring more stability to some of the otherwise more vulnerable relationships. More marriages should mean more family stability and less family breakdown. But in the long run, ultimate proof that more marriage is a good thing will come from what happens to child outcomes over time. Less family breakdown should mean fewer children with mental health problems, of which family breakdown is the number one predictor. 

Yet even now, the consequences of Hungary’s ten year-long family policy are striking. According to the Maria Kopp Institute for Demography and Families, fertility rates have risen from 1.25 to 1.59 births per woman, just above the EU average. Births outside marriage have fallen from 48% in 2010 to 30% in 2021. And, as a reminder, marriage rates have risen by 92%.  

We need to talk about Hungary.

Harry Benson

Harry Benson is research director for the UK’s Marriage Foundation, PhD student at the University of Bristol, and author of ‘Commit or quit’ and ‘What mums want (and dads need to know)’