In the last month or so article after article appeared about the conclusions of a group of economists and demographers who have been discussing possible solutions to the interrelated problems of the low Hungarian birthrate and the eventual depletion of the state pension fund. This group, the Népesedési Kerekasztal (Demographic round table), seems to have the support of the Orbán government. It is deeply conservative and a promoter of family values.
One of the most vocal proponents of pension reform among the group is Katalin Botos, an economist who was a member of parliament between 1990 and 1994 and also served as minister without portfolio in charge of the banking sector in the Antall government. Prior to the change of regime she was a department head in the Ministry of Finance (1971-1987). Lately, she has been teaching economics at various universities.
The Hungarian media acts as if this is the first time the public has heard about the outlandish plans of Katalin Botos. But in May 2012 Népszava ran the following headline: “One must give birth for one’s pension.” At that time Katalin Botos and her husband József Botos were active in the Working Group for a Family Friendly Hungary, which was organized under the aegis of the Ministry of Hungarian Economy. The study that appeared at that time was entitled “A középosztály gyermekvállalási forradalma” (The revolution of childbearing of the middle classes). In it, the Botoses explained the logic behind the introduction of a sliding scale of pension payments depending on the number of children. After all, pensions are being paid by current wage earners, and if a couple did not produce at least two children they are freeloaders.
At that time the group made calculations on the basis of 2010 maximum, minimum, and average salaries and came to the conclusion that an employee earning an average salary would get 14.4 points but only if he/she produced at least two children. Extra points would be earned for each additional child. On the other hand, employees with one or no child would be docked a certain number of points. According to this system, someone with an average salary of 113,000 forints with no children would receive a pension of 70,000 forints while a person with four children would get 142,000!
Members of the working group did address the problem of couples who cannot have children for physical reasons but somewhat heartlessly remarked that “the fact still is that there is no one behind them who is responsible for their pensions.”
When this study was made public the vast majority of experts found the scheme unacceptable and ineffectual. To hope for a higher birthrate by linking it to higher pensions thirty or forty years later is totally unrealistic.
The public reception was anything but friendly, and the government promptly announced that they have no intention of introducing it in the near future. But, as we can see, this plan has remained on the government’s agenda because the latest scheme released by the Demographic Round Table is practically the same as the one in 2012. The few additions to the new report in fact make it even less attractive.
As far as the government was concerned, the original Botos plan had one huge flaw: in the Roma population families are large and girls begin to reproduce early. Surely, the argument went, you don’t want to encourage them with a pension system that might increase family sizes. So, an additional restriction was added: only children who finished high school (matriculation) or trade school would count. Not surprisingly, this was considered by critics of the plan as anti-Roma.
This time around the authors of the scheme also addressed details that were not considered in the 2012 version. For example, a person whose child died before he could finish high school would be exempt. The same would be true of children with a mental disability. But many questions remain. What will happen to young people who decide to work abroad? Will their departure be accompanied by a drastically reduced pension for their parents?
Although the plan was fleshed out a bit, by and large the “mad” scheme, as many commentators called it, remained intact.
Across the whole spectrum of the Hungarian media the reaction was uniformly negative. And real panic set in when Péter Harrach, leader of the Christian Democratic parliamentary delegation, announced that the report of the Demographic Round Table was in line with the thinking of the government and therefore there was a good possibility that the suggestions will be adopted, perhaps as early as September.
This was unfortunate from the government’s point of view. Right before the municipal elections such an announcement could have disastrous consequences, especially among those under the age of 35 whose pensions would be directly affected by the new law. Mihály Varga, minister of national economy, quickly reassured the voters after Harrach’s unfortunate interview that “it will not be necessary to have more children for higher pensions.” The Hungarian pension system is stable and there is no need to make any changes before 2030. But then why all the talk about a scheme that has been on the table for at least two years?
Well-known experts on the pension system, like György Németh, are convinced that the entire economic framework that lies behind the Botos couple’s scheme is wrong. In fact, in Németh’s opinion, it is unacceptable. Raising the birthrate is desirable, but it can be achieved only by the introduction of government measures that lower the expenses of child rearing. Compensation forty years down the road for the heavy financial burden of bringing up children today will not achieve anything. It is no coincidence that this interview appeared in Magyar Nemzet.
I would like to believe that this madcap idea will not be adopted, but I have a strong suspicion that in spite of Varga’s assurances to the contrary something is afoot. I would not be at all surprised if within a few months parliament passes a law that links procreation with pensions. If such law is passed, even more people will leave Hungary and settle elsewhere where the state does not interfere in their private lives. Oh well, at least the state won’t have to worry about their pensions.