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The hard work of correcting Europe’s demographic course

| June 14, 2017

A devastating demographic crisis is chipping away at the strength of European nations. An ageing population combined with low fertility rates raise daunting challenges, and many countries are struggling to find solutions.

“Europe is old, rich and weak,” Prime Minister Orbán said recently, “the world’s population is rapidly growing, while the population of Europe is declining.” While some argue that immigration must be part of the answer, Hungary has dared to propose an alternative “by relying on our own resources,” he said, speaking at the second annual Budapest Demographic Forum. As the lofty ideals of multiculturalism and Willkommenskultur tumble in the wake of terror attacks across Europe, the Hungarian alternative asserts that there is another path. The restoration of natural reproduction, the prime minister said, is “not just one cause among many” but “the European cause” and “the Hungarian cause” itself.

Families have been, according to the PM, “the center of the Hungarian government’s vision of the future” since taking office in 2010, inspiring innovative policies to support housing and raising more children, increasing wages and building a work-based economy that has drawn people back into the active labor force. While we’ve begun to see important results, it requires a long-term commitment. The figures are clear: since 2010, the seasonally adjusted number of employed Hungarians has increased from under 3.8 million to over 4.3 million, and the majority of new jobs have been created in the open labor market.

“We vainly turn the wheel,” said Prime Minister Orbán, comparing the effort to changing the course of an ocean liner, “but the body will not follow the new direction in the next second, only slowly.” However, with a focus on population growth and a strong engine, which is economic capacity, it is possible. Reversing the declining demographic trends begins with a determined belief that it’s possible to change course.

To remind us that the effort matters, we can point to a number of accomplishments since 2010.

The number of abortions in Hungary decreased by 25 percent, falling from 40 thousand to 30 thousand a year. Just ten years ago, Hungary used to be a tail-ender country on demographic lists in the EU concerning population aging, population decline and life expectancy at birth. However, in 2016, we saw a slowdown – a drop of 16 percent year-on-year – in the rate of population decline thanks to the lower number of abortions, decrease in the number of deaths and improving birth rate.

In 2016, 93 thousand babies were born in Hungary, 1.5 percent more than in 2015. The fertility rate went up, 15 percent higher than four years ago. In 2016, the country saw 126,900 deaths, 3.6 percent less than in 2015. Moreover, marriages increased by 12 percent in 2016 over the previous year, a 20-year peak. The number of adoptions is promisingly increasing, while there are fewer divorces. Unemployment figures are now at record lows.

“These positive trends are battling back a population decline that Hungary has suffered since 1981”, said Katalin Novák, state secretary for Family and Youth Affairs of the Ministry of Human Resources.

“Among the pro-family policies developed to support this,” Novák said, “the government has implemented family tax credits, the family housing support program, and a nationwide system of nursery schools.”

There’s more to come. The Orbán Government has just introduced a new national demographic program that looks ahead to the year 2060. Some of the new benefits coming soon to families will include forgiving student loans for mothers of two or more, extending maternity leave for graduates and university students, building and renovating infant day care centers, and taking over portions of debt of families with three or more children.

Through these policies, Hungary aims to benefit its own citizens and also to “contribute to Europe’s success by setting a good, brave example of governmental action” said Prime Minister Orbán, because when it comes to the subject of demography, “in Europe today we tend to lack good examples.”

“We Hungarians also know that it is possible to sail into the wind. What’s more, it is even possible to make headway against the wind,” the prime minister said.