Hungarian Conservative

‘Hungary continues to be an honest broker of family policy during the EU Presidency’ — An Interview with State Secretary Ágnes Hornung

Ágnes Hornung, Secretary of State, Family Policy, Hungary
PHOTO: Ministry of Culture and Innovation
‘Family policy will remain of utmost importance to us, as part of our overarching priority of demography during our presidency. It is clear that all of our societies are being reshaped by the challenges of demographic change. The Hungarian Presidency intends to examine demography from the perspective of competitiveness in a holistic way by including it in the agenda of almost all council formations,’ State Secretary responsible for families at the Ministry of Culture and Innovation Ágnes Hornung told Hungarian Conservative in a recent interview.

Born in Budapest in 1980, Agnes Hornung is married and a mother of two. She graduated with a law degree from the Faculty of Law and Political Science at Pázmány Péter Catholic University in 2003. She furthered her education by obtaining a degree in law and economics from Corvinus University of Budapest in 2010, and she is also a certified tax consultant. In May 2022, on the recommendation of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, she was appointed as State Secretary responsible for families at the Ministry of Culture and Innovation.


Based on the experiences of the past decade and a half, it has become evident that ‘family-friendly Hungary’ is not just a political aim or a statement of fact but has in fact evolved into a brand. Passengers arriving and departing from Budapest Ferenc Liszt International Airport will encounter this phrase. But how did this development come about, and what are the future goals for this brand?

Indeed, the difference is striking, especially compared to airports like Zaventem in Brussels or Heathrow in London. In Hungary, this brand exists because the Hungarian government has made families a cornerstone of its national strategy since the family-friendly turn in 2010. This long-standing family policy aims to provide comprehensive support to the most minor units of society: families.

The brand’s long-term goal is to embed this message deeply into public consciousness, both domestically and internationally.

Anyone who sees or hears this slogan will understand that Hungary is a steadfast supporter of families at every stage of their lives.

And what about the European Union? With the Hungarian Presidency approaching, is Hungary preparing to clarify the meaning behind the messages people see upon arriving at the airport to EU decision-makers?

Family policy will remain of utmost importance to us, as part of our overarching priority of demography during our presidency. It is clear that all of our societies are being reshaped by the challenges of demographic change. The Hungarian Presidency intends to examine demography from the perspective of competitiveness in a holistic way by including it in the agenda of almost all council formations (AGRI, ECOFIN, COMPET, Cohesion, Transport, EPSCO, EYCS). Much of the upcoming discussions will greatly affect families such as the debate on the retaining power of rural areas, the sustainability of pension, and budget systems or labour reserve.

PHOTO: Ministry of Culture and Innovation

What is the minimum goal of the Hungarian government?

For the Hungarian Presidency, in the spirit of being an ‘honest broker’, that is, being constructive and seeking consensus among Member States, the plan is to adopt two sets of council conclusions in the EPSCO Council that are closely related to the well-being of families. The first conclusion will focus especially on the mental health of women, investigating the factors contributing to the increased mental burden they face throughout their lives. The second will address the issues of work-life balance and intergenerational solidarity. For the latter, we aim to highlight initiatives tailored to families’ diverse life situations and needs, ensuring that those who plan and raise children can thrive both in their work and family life by using the untapped potential of the younger and older generations.

Are you optimistic?

I have already had bilateral discussions with my counterparts of almost every Member State before the start of our presidency, presenting our plans and agenda. Everyone was supportive, since it is in the interest of all Members States to cooperate. They have not only welcomed our initiative to address these topics but have also agreed on the need for the Union to tackle demographic challenges. The Commission’s Demographic Toolbox was published at the end of last year—in order to address these paramount challenges—which will serve us as a reference. We welcome in particular the approach that family policies are an essential component of the Toolbox, thereby acknowledging the role of family support measures in long-term demographic change. While shaping family policy is a national responsibility, we trust that Hungary’s achievements over the past 14 years—from the family tax system to home-building benefits and support for young people—will inspire EU heads of state and government.

Fourteen years of family policy measures are difficult to summarize, but it is necessary. People have been curious about the essence of Hungarian family policy at many international conferences and discussions. How would you sum it up as simply as possible?

Our family policy, unique worldwide, is based on two pillars: a robust foundational mindset with a transparent value system and a comprehensive set of tools. The essence of the former can be summed up in a single sentence: as soon as a traveller steps off a plane and onto Hungarian soil, they realize that Hungary prioritizes, protects, and supports families. The toolset brings this mindset to life through various measures. These include state-subsidized housing schemes like the Family Housing Subsidy (CSOK Plus) and the Rural Family Housing Subsidy, financial security initiatives like family tax and social contribution benefits as well as the tax exemption of young people under 25, women under 30 with children, and mothers of four or more children. Additionally, measures are aimed at creating a healthy work-life balance, such as developing crèches and encouraging family-friendly workplaces. Our family policy supports the freedom of choice of families in all life situations, whether they decide to have another child or return to work.

On 1 January 2024 the population of Hungary was 9,584,000. In Hungary, as in most Western countries, the population is slowly but surely decreasing for the time being. The government has taken many steps to reverse this trend, and the desire to have children started to increase until 2021. What caused the stalling? What characterizes the current situation, and what measures does the government intend to use to reverse unfavourable trends?

The government’s most important strategic goal is to support families in having the desired number of children. As for the demographic data, we have been able to slow down the demographic decline experienced in several Western European countries with the Hungarian family support model. However, let’s not forget that a war has been raging in our neighbourhood for two years, while there is also the danger of war escalation. If the fact of the war was not enough in itself, wartime inflation also significantly influenced the desire to have children. But inflation has now been curbed, and this year, 2024, the Hungarian economy is on a growth path. However, the preceding period has left its mark. Despite all this, even in these difficult times, we will not give up on our principles: we will protect family benefits, guarantee the peace and safety of families, and provide predictability. That is why we are not saving on families, even in the most challenging times. At the same time, it is crucial to emphasize that the success of family policy cannot be measured solely by the achievement of demographic goals, that is, by the status of the number of births or the total fertility rate (TFR) at a given point. We are committed to ensuring that those who have children receive help from the government in all areas of life and that they are not financially worse off than those without children.

Is there a family policy measure that was introduced after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine?

Yes, we introduced a new form of the former CSOK housing subsidy scheme known as CSOK Plus. In other words, despite the wartime economic situation, we rolled out Europe’s most considerable home-creation assistance. This state-subsidized loan, offering up to 50 million forints with an interest rate capped at 3 per cent, is available to married couples who are either childless or planning to have additional children. Data from CSOK Plus applications show that this support is significantly helping families, and the related childbearing statistics indicate that such support can increase the desire to have children. Additionally, in 2023, after the outbreak of the war, we introduced personal income tax exemptions for mothers who had children before the age of 30 and a debt relief scheme for student loan debts.

PHOTO: Ministry of Culture and Innovation

Let’s return to the demographic data: how would you assess the current levels of desire to have children?

To add some context: the children born in the first months of this year, the basis of today’s data, were conceived in the spring and summer of 2023. During this time, people still felt the impact of wartime sanctions and rising prices. Additionally, last year’s birth numbers were affected by the lingering effects of the pandemic, as people were simply glad to be able to live without restrictions. Many postponed having children during the pandemic due to uncertainties about the impact of vaccinations on pregnancy. Then, the war-induced energy price crisis led to reforms in the utility costs-reduction system, causing further uncertainty. Fortunately, most people still enjoy discounted electricity and gas prices, but the last two years did see many extraordinary factors. Therefore, it might make more sense to make medium-term comparisons.

Of course.

Between 2010 and 2023, favourable changes were achieved in many aspects of population trends: the willingness to have children saw a lasting increase, the continually increasing delay in having the first child was successfully slowed down, and the proportion of children born within a marriage increased.

What does this mean in terms of numbers?

The total fertility rate (TFR), which indicates the willingness to have children, has significantly improved from the low point of 1.23 in 2011. Over the last four years, the TFR has consistently been above 1.5. This means that,

hypothetically, while 100 women would have given birth to 123 children in 2011, by 2023, this number has increased to 151.

This shows that more families are having more children. This achievement is even more significant considering that the number of women in the most affected age group (20–39) has decreased drastically by over a fifth since 2010.

If only three key factors could be singled out, what would be the three in which Hungarian family policy differs significantly from other countries in the West?

First, Hungarian family policy is characterized by demand-driven solutions, many of which are unique to Hungary, such as the Baby-Expecting Subsidy, the student loan debt relief, and lifelong personal income tax exemption for mothers of four or more children. Second, the Hungarian government has created an independent policy area by distinguishing family policy from social policy. To promote the responsible starting and sustaining of a family, most family policy measures are linked to employment and the payment of income taxes and social contributions. This approach has improved the financial situation of families with children through work-related tax benefits. Over the last decade, employment figures have also underpinned that this is the right policy, with one million more people working in Hungary today.

Third, the Hungarian government is committed to a pro-life approach, with the protection of life beginning at conception.

This family-friendly approach is also evident because many family support measures, such as the Baby-Expecting Subsidy, family tax benefit, the tax exemption of mothers under 30, the Family Housing Subsidy (CSOK Plus), and the student loan debt relief can be applied for already during pregnancy.

What is the significance of the fact that family policy and social policy have been divided in Hungary?

In many Western European countries, these two areas are often combined under one ministry. When family policy was treated as a part of social policy, it conveyed the message that having children meant accepting poverty, with children seen as a cause of financial hardship. However, we believe that the purpose of family policy is not to combat poverty but to support the birth of desired children, strengthen families, and improve their well-being. This approach also indirectly enhances the country’s competitiveness.

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of meeting members of a delegation from a Japanese research institute. The researchers were very interested in the ingenuity of the Hungarian concept, given that Japan’s demographic trends require urgent intervention. They focused on our measures that create an interaction between family policy and various economic sectors. What are the policy solutions that have an impact by involving the financial and real estate markets?

The best example is support for homemaking. Domestic surveys show that when couples consider starting a family, one of the most important aspects is having a suitable home. In Hungary, families feel secure when they live in their own homes. Hungarian families view homeownership as a family asset and a guarantee of security, which is why our home-building subsidies are so popular. It is essential to highlight that Hungary is at the forefront of the European Union in terms of the proportion of people who own their homes.

PHOTO: Ministry of Culture and Innovation

Can you elaborate on a specific initiative?

Certainly. CSOK Plus, introduced on 1 January 2024, provides unprecedented support for married couples with children to create a home. This loan with a favourable interest rate offers significant assistance to families while also boosting the banking sector that disburses the loan, as well as the real estate market. A key element in this initiative is the Hungarian National Bank Housing and Real Estate Market Advisory Board,

which could serve as a model for other countries.

This professional forum ensures an efficient and regular exchange of information between leading players in the real estate market and economic policy. The State Secretary for Families is also a member of the housing market section, ensuring that family interests are considered in every meeting.

So far, we have discussed young people. What measures increase the willingness to have children by involving the older generations?

Let’s approach this from a different angle: we aim to encourage families not to delay having their first child. If families have their first child when the mother is younger, preferably before the age of 30, there is a greater likelihood of having additional children. This will impact generational life paths, perceptions of roles, and cooperation. Over the last decade, our views on active ageing have evolved significantly. In Hungarian family policy, we’ve created opportunities for grandparents to take a more active role in their children’s and grandchildren’s lives. By narrowing the age gap between generations, grandparents can actively and energetically fulfill their roles, assisting in raising their grandchildren. To address your specific question: we have developed a family policy that supports individuals throughout their lives.

Supporting the elderly brings multiple benefits:

we assist the generation whose work has laid the foundations for the present and indirectly help the young by reducing their burdens.

Critical measures for older people include the Women40 Programme, allowing women to retire after forty years of service and take a more significant role in caring for their grandchildren. Additionally, suppose grandparents are not yet retired but want to participate actively in their grandchildren’s upbringing. In that case, they can make use of the grandparent’s childcare fee, which counts as service time for their pension. Our family policy supports physical, mental, and spiritual health, including measures for older generations. This includes initiatives like the Elderly-Friendly Municipal Award and support for national walking clubs, which are also unique to Hungary. These initiatives significantly contribute to older people’s physical and mental well-being while fostering community building.

What is your experience regarding the international influence of Hungarian family policy?

In Hungary we began the consistent work of building a family policy over a decade ago, and we have persevered despite various crises. Tangible results already prove the effectiveness of our approach. At the same time, many countries in Europe, Asia, and other continents have only recently recognized, or have yet to recognize, the strategic importance of family policy. We have noticed that the success of the Hungarian family policy has garnered international attention, reflected in the growing interest in our ‘recipe’. Meetings are initiated both within and outside the EU, from the Middle and Far East regions of Asia, as well as from the African and American continents.

Can you cite an example?

In June 2020, the Latvian government adopted the Support (Balsts) programme, modelled after the Hungarian approach. This programme provides families with three or more children a non-refundable subsidy of 8–12 thousand Euros from the state for purchasing or building a home. I could mention several Polish examples, too, such as granting personal income tax exemptions to adults raising at least four children whose annual income does not exceed a specified limit. Additionally, if you are referring to international meetings, I can say that interest in Hungarian family policy and family-friendly measures has been exceptionally high among Far Eastern countries. Film crews from these regions, eager to find solutions for their pressing demographic issues, frequently visit Hungary to learn from our experiences.

‘Family policy will remain of utmost importance to us, as part of our overarching priority of demography during our presidency. It is clear that all of our societies are being reshaped by the challenges of demographic change. The Hungarian Presidency intends to examine demography from the perspective of competitiveness in a holistic way by including it in the agenda of almost all council formations,’ State Secretary responsible for families at the Ministry of Culture and Innovation Ágnes Hornung told Hungarian Conservative in a recent interview.