I have spared you details of László Sólyom's recent boorish behavior, particularly at the time of the election of Gordon Bajnai as prime minister of Hungary. But since the Hungarian president's recent press conference serves to introduce the theme of the day, let me put it into context. Sólyom asked Bajnai to visit him in his residence; apparently the two men spent at least an hour and a half together. Sólyom was all smiles afterwards. It seems that he likes Bajnai a great deal more than Gyurcsány (whom he most likely loathes). Moreover, he unequivocally announced earlier that Bajnai and his government are legitimate and that he will work with the new prime minister. What he did after the meeting was less acceptable. During a long press conference he pretty well told the whole world what he demanded of the new prime minister. He had a long list of "requirements," among them keeping the current practice of three years of "gyermekgondozási díj," known by the acronym GYED. A woman who just gave birth to a child can quit her job and stay at home with the child for three years. The government will reimburse her at a rate of 70% of her former salary. A really good deal. There is also something called "gyermekgondozási segély" (GYES) that is 28,500 Ft per month per child. Again the woman is eligible to receive GYES for three years. Sólyom's reasoning was that there aren't enough children in Hungary and that the current practice increases the birth rate. Moreover, Sólyom wasn't sure whether it is a good idea for young children to be in nursery schools or in general to be "part of a community."
I'm no child psychologist, but as far as I know the only downside to well-run nursery schools and kindergartens is that kids get sick more often than they would if they stayed at home with mom. (And is this a downside for the children or for the parents who get sick more often than they would if the kids stayed at home with mom?) Anyway, prior to the change of regime Hungary was very well endowed with nursery schools and kindergartens. Unfortunately, most of these institutions have since closed. Moreover, women themselves would rather stay at home on GYES and GYED for years. In one sense this is a no-brainer. Who wouldn't on 70% of her former salary? But easy money comes at a price. In the case of professional women such a long hiatus from the work force puts them at an incredible disadvantage. But women with less demanding jobs also discover that returning to work can be difficult, and when they do get a job it is often at a much lower salary than what they earned prior to the birth of their child or children.
Given the current situation it is clear that something has to be done with GYES and GYED. According to the OECD Family Database Hungary spends three times as much on early child care in the form of assistance and monthly pay as the average of the well developed countries represented by OECD. Only 4% of Hungarian children under the age of three attend nursery schools; the European Union's desideratum is 30%. Hungary is the last among the European Union countries when it comes to employment of women with children under the age of two. The situation is not much better among women with children between the ages of three and five. In this category Hungary is second to last.
Moreover, there have been studies (András Gábos, Róbert Iván Gál and Gábor Kézdi, "Birth order of child-related benefits and pensions," 2009) showing that cash benefits didn't substantially raise the birth rate. According to the authors even if one doubled GYES and GYED the birth rate would climb only from 1.3 to 1.6 children per women. (And one has to ask what kind of women would have additional children to get extra cash.) Klára Dobrev, wife of former Prime Minister Gyurcsány, wrote an article in the December 2008 issue of Mozgó Világ in which she claimed that while thirty years ago the birth rate was higher in countries where mothers stayed at home today the opposite is true. But, she added, men have to assume a larger role in child rearing and more nursery schools and kindergartens are needed.
Yet Hungarians cling to the notion that mothers' long stay at home with the children boosts the birth rate. At least this was what Szonda Ipsos found last year. Twenty-five percent of the population think that mothers should stay home with their children for their first five years. In Hungary, because of the generosity of benefits and the scarcity of nursery schools and kindergartens, on average a Hungarian mother of one stays at home for four years; for a mother of two that period expands to six years.
Now that the government is contemplating a reduction in child rearing benefit coverage from three to two years, feminists (the few who exist in Hungary) and associations fighting for the rights of the family have united in a strange alliance. Almost twenty organizations protested against any change in the current benefit package. The protest can be read on www.babafalva.hu. According to Mária Adamik, a sociologist and director of the Gender Studies Center of ELTE, their "manifesto" is full of contradictions. On the one hand, there are feminist demands such as the right to employment, equal pay, equal responsibilities, more nursery schools and kindergartens, but at the same time there are other statements that point to a certain resignation that these demands will never materialize and therefore GYES and GYED should somehow compensate for the less than equal status of women.
Neither the manifesto of women's organizations nor President Sólyom's desire to pay to have more little Hungarians will likely deter the Hungarian government from reducing the expenses of an expensive program devised in the mid 1980s. Hungary couldn't afford it then and it cannot afford it now. Especially since it doesn't seem to make any substantial difference in the birth rate.