The GOP Is Flirting With This Hungarian Autocrat’s Generous—And Exclusionary—Family Benefits
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Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.Hungary, the landlocked Central European country of about ten million people, has become an unusual role model for US conservatives, with Tucker Carlson describing it as a place “with a lot of lessons for the rest of us.” Since 2010, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has transformed the democratic country into a right-wing autocracy, or in his words “illiberal democracy,” by delegitimizing the independent press, building a militarized wall along the country’s southern border, expelling asylum seekers in potential violation of international treaties, separating migrants from their children, essentially outlawing gay adoption, and banning schools from teaching LGBTQ content to students under 18. After meeting with him at the White House, former president Donald Trump was inspired to say Orbán was “probably, like me, a little bit controversial, but that’s OK.”
If Orbán’s policies sound similar to the Build-the-Wall, Don’t-Say-Gay brand of American conservatism, his penchant for bolstering the birth rate and rewarding large families appear to be yet another Hungarian-inspired social policy blueprint some Republicans are pining to adopt. The Hungarian government covers the cost of In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) treatments, provides up to three years of paid maternity benefits, doles out discount coupons for minivans, and grants forgivable interest-free loans to young couples who plan to procreate.
In the US, where birth rates have also fallen about 16 percent in the last decade, the imitators are lining up. Earlier in March, former President Donald Trump floated “baby bonuses for a new baby boom” at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. “You men are so lucky out there!” Trump added, offering an unsubtle reference to how this government policy would enhance men’s sex lives.
Also this month, Senator J.D. Vance, an Ohio Republican who reduces his views on reproductive and family policy to the concise “babies are good” declarative sentence, suggested to reporters on Capitol Hill that the cost of childbirth should be paid for by the government. Previously, Vance has lauded Orbán for his forgivable loan program for married couples, in which they can get interest-free loans dependent on their promise to have kids. “Why can’t we do that here?” he asked, speaking to a conservative think-tank in July 2021. “Why can’t we actually promote family formation?”
Orbán often says that his pro-natalist policies stem from a desire to bolster the size of the country’s declining population and labor force through a baby boom rather than through immigration. Some countries “want as many migrants to enter as there are missing kids so that the numbers will add up,” Orban said in 2019. “We Hungarians have a different way of thinking. Instead of just numbers, we want Hungarian children. Migration for us is surrender.”
But the closer you look at his country’s eligibility requirements for family benefits, the more clearly you see the kind of babies Orbán wants to populate his boom: not just Hungarian nationals, but children from married, heterosexual, middle-income and up Hungarian nationals with stay-at-home moms.
The Hungarian government has taken over IVF clinics and subsidized the treatment cost down to $0 from $20,000-plus, but lesbians are excluded from the benefit. It provides up to three years of paid parental leave to mothers, but merely five days for fathers—an imbalance that exacerbates the gender inequality gap in Hungary, which ranks third from the bottom on a ranking of the European Union’s 27 member countries.
Heterosexual couples who plan to have children are eligible for government interest-free loans for anything, from housing to bassinets. These loans are either reduced or forgiven, depending on how many children are born, but parents must meet tax and marriage requirements. In order to be eligible, they have to be married, and one spouse has to be on their first marriage. Additionally, Hungarian mothers under 30, and women of any age with four or more children, are exempt from ever paying income taxes again. Since this benefit is relayed through the income tax system, only women with jobs are eligible. Large numbers of certain populations—like Roma Gypsies—who tend to be lower-income with unstable employment but have many children are usually excluded.
“He introduced the family benefits as tax credits instead of handouts—thereby disqualifying everyone who earned less than a particular amount from receiving the benefits,” explains Kim Scheppele, a Princeton sociology professor researching the fall of democracies. “That cut out most of the Roma, whose incomes are far less than the Hungarian average.”
In the US too, some of the pro-family policies Republican lawmakers have suggested may benefit more affluent, married parents versus poorer, single ones.
Perhaps the closest American parallel to what is taking place in Hungary is a bill Texas state lawmaker Bryan Slayton introduced in late February that would effectively reduce Texas property taxes by 40 percent for married heterosexual couples with four kids, with an additional 10 percent savings for every additional child, up to 10 children. Another requirement for the proposed benefit is that neither parent in the marriage can be previously divorced. Under Slayton’s bill—which is unlikely to pass because it has zero co-sponsors—married heterosexual parents with 10 children living in a $2.7 million Dallas mansion would get a credit for their property taxes—which in Dallas are approximately 2.2 percent of the property’s assessed value. That means this hypothetical couple would receive about a $59,000 tax benefit. Renters, who are statistically lower income, wouldn’t benefit since they do not pay any property tax. The idea is not dissimilar to Hungary’s zero percent personal income tax rate for mothers with four or more children.
At the federal level, US conservatives’ pro-family policy proposals are considerably less brazen than Slayton’s, and certainly less homophobic, but they are still designed to exclude some families. That’s because Republican lawmakers—members of the party that spent decades vilifying a fabricated welfare queen and opposing child-friendly policies like universal free school lunch, paid parental leave, and universal childcare—prefer to introduce family policies as benefits tied to federal income taxes, rather than as entitlement programs like food stamps and WIC, which provides nutritional assistance to low-income pregnant women and infants.
“Taking inspiration from Orbán’s clever system of setting up what looks like a generous system of family benefits,” says Scheppele, “the imperative in the US that I’ve gathered from the standpoint of some MAGA Republicans would be how to get family benefits to white people when Black people can’t qualify.”
In practice, this might mean increasing the Child Tax Credit which stands now at $2,000 per child, but making the full benefit reliant on a $10,000 per-year income threshold, such as Senator Mitt Romney has previously proposed. Many low-income families would receive a higher credit under Romney’s plan than they currently enjoy, but some low-income and middle-income families, especially those with single parents who currently claim the “head of household” tax status, would lose other tax offsets that Romney’s plan proposes changing. According to the Center on Bipartisan Policy Priorities, millions of children would be worse off under Romney’s plan than they would be if the system stays as is.
Exclusionary family policies might also mean marriage bonuses, similar to what Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) proposed in 2021, and what J.D. Vance endorsed before his Senate election. Like Hungary’s forgivable loan program, Hawley’s 2021 proposal preferences married couples, who would get a $12,000 tax credit per year if they met an annual earnings threshold of $7,540, versus a $6,000 annual credit for a single parent meeting the same $7,540 income threshold. Hawley says this was explicitly designed to more easily allow one parent leaving the workforce to raise their household’s children.
“The Parent Tax Credit rewards marriage,” he wrote in Fox Business News in 2021. “Rather than merely doubling the earnings threshold to ensure there is no marriage penalty, the credit maintains the same income requirements for married parents. That means an explicit marriage bonus of 100 percent.”
Of course, being the child of parents who never marry, or who ultimately divorce, or being the child of a very low-income parent are all circumstances over which kids have no control. Politicians, however, do have control over designing pro-family benefits in ways that don’t exclude them and their families. Just look at Lithuania, where every child until the age of 18 receives roughly $85 a month, unless their parents make less than 150 percent above the country’s poverty line, in which case they get approximately $135. Families with three or more kids receive an additional allowance, no matter their income. Luxembourg offers a standardized $290 monthly benefit per child that marginally increases with a child’s age; there are no income thresholds or caps. Poland pays families about $2,700 cash every year for each child after their first is between the age of 12 and 36 months, also with no income thresholds or caps.
Raising a child from birth to age 18 in the US is estimated to exceed $300,000, so it makes sense that parents of any political ideology may endorse the concept of baby bonuses or more generous child tax credits at first glance. But before celebrating that more politicians are talking about how exorbitantly expensive it is to raise a child in today’s economy, it’s worth taking a look under the hood to find who their policy solutions would benefit—and exclude.