In Conversation with Eva Fodor: How the Carefare Gender Regime Shapes Hungary

RevDem Editor László Bence Bari in conversation with Éva Fodor, Professor at the Gender Studies and Pro-Rector of the Central European University about her latest book The Gender Regime of Anti-Liberal Hungary. In this book, she argues that the anti-liberal government of Hungary has established a specific kind of gender regime, the ‘carefare’ policy which allows the government to stabilize and expand its rule over society and to support its ideological and political goals.

This conversation took place on February 17, 2022.

László Bence Bari: Your main thesis is that anti-liberal Hungary has established a specific kind of ‘state gender regime’ – a concept that you use in the book. Another concept that you introduce is that it exercises a special socio-economic policy that you call ‘carefare’, which shows parallels to the concepts of ‘prisonfare’ and ‘workfare’, scientific concepts that criticize the socio-economic policy of late neoliberalism. Could you expand a bit further upon these concepts that you use and that you introduce in this book?

Éva Fodor: Indeed, the book describes Hungary’s welfare regime or gender regime with the term ’carefare’.

‘Carefare’, in the way I think about, is a form of welfare regime, where care is the basis of claiming social citizenship rights. Social citizenship rights are just basically access to the resources that people need to satisfy their basic human needs. These are social rights, these are citizenship rights, like the right to vote etc. Now, in different types of societies, you can claim these social rights on different bases. In typical, neo-liberal, capitalist countries, social rights are most successfully claimed on the basis of social insurance. If you are in the labor market and have been working hard, then if you get sick, then you can claim sick benefits or sick leave. You can use your health insurance and then get some replacement for your salaries through your social insurance. Similarly, pension is a social benefit that typically accrues on the basis of social insurance. If somebody is in dire need, then the state typically takes care of their basic needs. There are homeless shelters and there is emergency medical care for people, regardless of their insurance.

My argument is that in the past ten years, the Hungarian government has introduced several rules and legislation that redirect the basis of claiming social rights, redirected from social insurance at least partially to care responsibilities. Nowadays, the most successful, the most generous types of social benefits are to be had on the basis of care responsibilities, combined with paid work. Just to give you a topical example: the Hungarian government decided that they wanted to provide pandemic relief to at least some groups in society and the most blatantly targeted group is families with children. Other groups receive almost no attention and no support. But families with children do. If you have children, if you have care responsibilities, you can claim a significant amount of money, about 2,000 euros, which is huge, which is double the average wage, as a form of pandemic relief. Now, it is not enough to have two children. It is important for you to have care responsibilities to claim this resource, but you also need to be in the paid labor market.

You can claim this based on caring for children, as long as you are also in the labor market, and you can claim it depending on how many children you care for. Most of the other benefits are related to that, but also how well you are doing on the labor market. This is one example, but there is a long list of such policies that the Hungarian government introduced the past ten years.

There is also a ‘baby loan’, which is again a huge sum of money that married couples can claim if they have, or promise to have, three children. They do not have to pay this back if they do have three children. You need to have children, or you need to promise to have children, you also need to be married. You need to be under a certain age, and you need to have some form of attachment to the formal labor market – at least somebody from the family has to have that.

These examples complemented by a very long list of others, and there is a long list in the appendix of my book, which lists loans to buy, renovate or build a new home, to buy cars. For all sorts of purposes, people can claim government subsidies if they are looking after children, if they plan to have children, and if they are simultaneously involved in the labor market.

Basically, carefare is a new form of welfare regime, one that gives preference to people who are raising children at the cost of everybody else.

At the same time, this also allowed the devaluation of other types of benefits that had been in existence, and which had been universal. These could be claimed even if somebody was not engaged in the labor market and had no paid job. For example, there is a family benefit, the value of which has not changed in the past 15-20 years. This means that it has lost much of its value, given the inflation rate in Hungary. And there are some other universal type benefits as well, which the government allowed to devalue, clearly preferencing the kinds of policies that target those in the labor market.

In the book, you argue that the measures of the Hungarian government, its carefare policy, corresponds with what you call and what others call the ‘crisis of care’ in neo-liberal societies. There is already a discourse about what the neoliberal state should do; on the other hand, you, along with others, claim Hungary is a special kind of hybrid regime as it combines the measures and the attitudes of ‘Western neoliberalism’ and ‘Eastern patrimonialism’. I would like to ask: what are the specificities in Hungarian society that allow room for the combination of such approaches, how can Hungarian society be a target of such policies?

Let me first address the issue of the ‘crisis of care’, a concept that is widely used in sociological literature. Nancy Fraser has written numerous articles that describe this concept, her argument is the one that is most often cited.

Everybody needs to be involved in the paid labor market and they have to increase their number of work hours, they need to be dedicated to paid work in order to make ends meet. People are supposed to have career and supposed to be dedicated to their work, they are supposed to be enjoying their work, they are supposed to be gaining their identity from their work. Yet, you need to reproduce people’s labor power. This typically happens in the household, and it is well known that it is mostly women’s job. Either women themselves to do it, or they try to buy services either from the state or in the private market, from migrant workers.

Fraser’s argument is that there is a huge contradiction between the demand on women to be working for wages in the labor market and between the increasing demand to provide intensive mothering and full attention to children to raise the next generation of dedicated laborers. You cannot do this at the same time.

Analogous to Marx’s concepts and claims in the Communist Manifesto, Fraser argues that these two forces clash, and this conflict will eventually lead to a revolution and a profound transformation of society. However, she claims that it is also possible that in the meantime, before the revolution, there will be mutant regimes emerging, that come up with some sort of a patched-up solution to the crisis of care.

My argument is that the current Hungarian regime is such a mutant regime. The carefare regime is a solution, but not a real, a proper, a long-term solution to the crisis of care. The regime clearly places a lot of emphasis on reproductive work, assigns reproductive work to women and to women only. It prohibits, in a sense, the employment of migrant workers, because the Hungarian state is obviously not particularly friendly to migrants and migration.

The solution to the crisis of care is to encourage women to work, but not to emphasize the need for a career for women.

The regime rather emphasizes women’s responsibilities in domestic care, it basically incentivizes women to provide it on their own. This is the point that I am making about how this Hungarian regime is a sort of response to the crisis of care.

The question of ‘neoliberal versus patrimonial’ tendencies (although I would rather use the word ‘patriarchal’). On the one hand, it is interesting that this gender regime does not have the typical ‘back-to-the-kitchen’ ideology, at least not in the typical, traditional conservative fashion. The expectation for women is not to drop out of the labor market. In fact, as I have already mentioned, there is a lot of encouragement and there are a lot of incentives out there for women to keep working even with three children. If you have four children and you are working, you do not have to pay taxes. This is a clear encouragement for women with a large number of children to be also involved in the paid labor market. In that sense, this is following a neoliberal agenda which encourages everybody into the labor market and everybody to be selling their labor power and working for wages.

At the same time, the Hungarian carefare regime is also extremely patriarchal or as some would call it, ‘patrimonial’. It is patriarchal in the sense that it emphasizes women’s ‘natural’ sort of ‘inclinations’ towards care work and women’s ‘natural skills’ to do care work. Whenever you listen to politicians or whenever you look at the posters that feature families, women are the ones doing care work. Typically, women are the ones doing much of this; and indeed, time-budget surveys – at least the ones that I have seen – do not show a change in the division of labor. Women tend to do a whole lot more care work, even during the pandemic women increased their care workload significantly more than men. So, a neoliberal push to the labor market is coupled with a patriarchal expectation of women simultaneously providing reproductive work and excusing men from this job.

This system regulates and disadvantages women the most, and advantages and benefits men when it comes to the gender spectrum. But can we talk about the groups of beneficiaries and disadvantaged in other dimensions as well? Can you name groups that clearly benefits from and that are clearly disadvantaged by the system?

That is a very good question, but I would not simplify it to the point of saying that this ‘disadvantages women and benefits men’. It certainly disadvantages a lot of women because it increases women’s work burden.

If a family has more children, then that increases the reproductive workload. That increase is typically carried by women and women alone; if families have more children, that extra care work is typically shouldered by women.

Studies also show men in managerial positions are often excused from doing care or childcare. They do not need to go pick up the kids from nursery school, they do not need to worry about dinner, etc. But women in managerial positions still have to do that. And if they do not do it themselves, then they need to organize it to be done.

These pro-natalist policies have resulted in more children being born. The work that goes into caring for those children will land on women’s shoulders. This is a disadvantage, women’s free-time time will be decreasing, because this is happening at the same time as women’s labor market participation is increasing. Women are not dropping out of the labor market and looking after children instead; on the contrary, women are adding to the work that they are already doing in the paid labor market. If you add up the paid work and unpaid work, you put it together, Women are severely over-loaded with their work commitments.

At the same time, this also benefits a lot of women. This Hungarian government does not pass legislation that is problematic politically or that could cause political liabilities. This legislation, the so-called ‘family support measures’, the loans and the incentive to have more children have proved to be positive in terms of politics for the government. This is extremely popular in Hungary, and it is also extremely popular among Hungarian women. This is puzzling to some extent, because these policies target only a small portion of the population. Less than 40% of the population live in families that are raising children, so only a small proportion of the population are eligible for these goodies. If you make a lot of money, you are eligible to all of it; if you make a little money, then you are only eligible to some. On the other hand, everybody has sisters, brothers, children and parents who they know are now eligible for these benefits; in a larger family, you are likely to find somebody who is eligible, and therefore this knowledge becomes a political gain for the government.

When people evaluate their position, they do not necessarily do this in absolute terms, but in relative terms. You have a family who had never seen 10 million HUF (approx. 26,000 EUR) in one lump, and suddenly they can take a loan of 10 million HUF. This is a huge windfall, a major benefit. And indeed, this is a benefit because they might be able to buy a home, they might be able to renovate the house, they might be able to move to an apartment that is more comfortable for themselves or their families. This is understood as a benefit, it is, in fact, a benefit. This is something that is very important. Similarly, the loans that you can take to renovate or build or buy homes are extremely beneficial to people who may not be able to afford this otherwise.

These loans are financially beneficial to different groups of people. They are extremely beneficial those at the top of the social hierarchy, because they can take advantage of all of it and can renovate their homes cheaply with these government subsidies. If you are lower down in the social hierarchy and you make less money or less well off, then this is beneficial to you, because you get access to stuff that you would not have been able to. It is a lump sum. It is something that you can really do something with. It is not just a little money, but a sum that you can put towards larger costs that you may not be able to otherwise. I think this is financially beneficial to a lot of people and often to women as well. You can observe that people are willing to exploit themselves more for this amount of money. The men who decide to have three children and are in the labor market to be eligible for the baby loan and decided they do not want to pay back the 10 million HUF or the baby loan, basically agree to do more work for this money, to exploit themselves more for this money. It seems from what you read in the papers and from service, it seems that this is understood as an advantage, as a benefit, rather than a disadvantage.

You could say ‘I don’t want to be working day and night to raise four children’, that is not what people are saying. It seems to me that there is more positive attitude towards these policies even though it means more work. So objectively, it means more work for women, for sure. But at the same time, it is also a financial benefit and creates financial opportunities for families who seem to believe that it is worth it.

Then it falls in line with the capitalist ethos that ‘if you work more, then you can achieve more’. It is rather the long-term consequences that can disadvantage many groups.

You also asked me about disadvantages, and I think it is also important to mention that there are groups who are excluded from this windfall.  These groups are not accidental.

If you are not in the formal labor market or if you do not make enough money, then you do not have access to these resources, even if you have children. Poor families, families who are less educated, families living in rural areas, who do not have access to the formal labor market at all, many of whom belong to Hungary’s vastly disadvantaged ethnic minority, the Roma – they are fully excluded from this system of benefits.

To a large extent, Hungary’s pro-natalist policies have a strong eugenic tilt: the preference of the birth of non-Roma, middle class, white children. Although this is not explicitly stated, but this is the outcome. This is the way the incentives are organized, and this is, therefore, a very clear disadvantage to the groups who do not belong in the preferred category.

The preservation of the so-called ‘ethnic Hungarian majority’ and the strengthening of the middle class as the group that ‘carries national identity the most’ are their explicitly stated main goals. So, I think the question also comes up: how Christianity, another trope when it comes to the Hungary government’s view on ‘national identity’ plays into the picture?

Christianity, less so, but the Catholic Church as an institution has an increasing role in the provision of welfare and the provision of care. In fact, I argue that one process that is characteristic of Hungary and that I have not seen anywhere else is the radical increase in the role of the Church in providing care and care work.

Critics argue that in neoliberal welfare states, the state deregulates services. In other words, the state sheds responsibility. The state does not operate childcare, but through a tender, offers provision of kindergarten to private providers or whoever can run it more cheaply or in a way that is attractive. This is called ‘deregulation’. Instead of the state, the services are actually provided by the market, but funded by the state, not necessarily for profit, but sometimes, even for profit.

Interestingly, there is also significant deregulation happening in Hungary, however, it is not happening by deregulating services to the market, but deregulating, shedding and passing these services on to church institutions.

In the book, the case study I use is the case of foster parents. Fostering is a state service, obviously: children in need still need parenting, and the state is supposed to provide that kind of parenting. This is the social right of these children. Up until a few years ago, most of the providers of the service were state actors as the Hungarian state had foster parent agencies. Then a few years ago, the state started to deregulate and offer these services to church actors. They did not say ‘churches should be running foster parent agencies’; they rather said, ‘I will give you 100 HUF (0,26 EUR) for each child that you foster if you are a state agency or a private agency, and I will give you 175 HUF (0,46 EUR) if you are a church-based agency’. The result was that 100 HUF per child was clearly not enough – but the 175 HUF per child was much more attractive. Therefore, every large church organization by now has a foster parent agency.

By now, practically all state or private actors have disappeared from the scene and fostering is done basically by church organizations funded by the state. This is a way for the state to financially support the churches, because while the churches do have to spend some of this money on the children, but there is no accounting of how they spend their extra money. This increases the role of the Church as an institution and it also increases the influence of the Church, because it can set the parameters for choosing foster parents.

The church sets the educational curriculum too, to some extent, it could and does expect children to participate in church-related activities.

In many ways, the church has ideological power and of course, political power because church organizations are known to be loyal to the government. Therefore, this is a way through which the government exercises direct political power as well. This creates direct political loyalty, and it is part of the electoral campaign.

I do not think Christianity has a lot to do with the way the Hungarian government operates.  During the migration crisis of 2015, the Catholic church did nothing and in fact, equated supporting the transient refugees to trafficking. They clearly did not feel that it is the Christian duty to take care of the children who were stuck here. That was not something that they thought was their duty. However, church organizations are certainly deeply involved in the provision of care and in education. The proportion of churches in providing education has increased through exactly the same method, by the state increasing the quota that they provide to church and schools compared to state and schools.

This outsourcing of services, this ‘churchification’, as you put it in your book, signs a reorganization of the state of affairs. This outsourcing of services is a quite radical one, one might say – which I think brings up the question: coupled with the previously discussed phenomena and measures, how have Hungarian society perceived changes of the gender state regime and the carefare system, if there is consciousness towards this phenomena? If there is not, why have been this topic marginalized or absent from the discourse?

The topic of ‘gender’ is certainly not absent from the discourse, even though the government has proclaimed that ‘there is no such thing as gender’. The concept and the term ‘gender’ comes up a surprising number of times in government-friendly media. I just checked Magyar Nemzet, which is one of the pro-government online and paper outlets; and in the online version of Magyar Nemzet, in the past 40 days, there were at least 40 articles published that used the term ‘gender’. So the concept of gender does come up in the public discourse or at least in the political discourse offered by the government.

The way they use the term ‘gender’ of course is questionable. They are part of what is typically called the ‘anti-gender ideology’, which argues against the socially-constructed nature of gender. It argues that there are ‘men’ and ‘women’ and no other types of identities are possible. It argues for the ‘naturalness’ say of heterosexuality as opposed to other types of sexualities, and in fact, it cements these in legislation, in the constitution and in other types of laws. So whenever the term ‘gender’ comes up – usually through discourses of the media or politicians – nowadays, at least in Hungary, the anti-gender discourse argues against what is perceived as the ‘Western influence’ to push innocent Hungarian children into changing their sexuality, sexual identity or sexual orientation.

There is a lot of literature on this; my book only describes this as the context in which carefare and the carefare regime exists. So if anybody is interested, I would like to recommend Eszter Kovács’s most recent dissertation, would-be monograph on the topic about Hungary and Germany; or a very recent book by Agnieszka Graff and Elzbieta Korolczuk (The Anti-Gender Politics in the Populist Movement, 2022), similarly on this anti-gender discourse which have become very popular in Hungarian government and media circles. This is really a political discourse which attempts to lay the groundwork for these pronatalist and anti-migration policies, the government’s disagreements with the European Union etc. It serves various political purposes.

The fact that the Hungarian government has chosen to create a referendum on ‘child protection’ was much within the same set of ideologies. In addition to the elections, the government decided to have a referendum. The referendum had four questions, and the government argued that these questions a matter of ‘child protection’. However, the questions themselves were extremely absurd. For example, one question asks whether one agrees with the idea that ‘sex change operations should be popularized amongst school-aged children’. The other three questions were similar. Clearly, this was not a question that is on the mind of a lot of people as an imminent social issue or a social problem. Clearly, the popularization of sex change operations was not high on list of priorities for curricular reform in elementary schools. In many ways, the question was just absurd; it clearly was not about sex change operations and it was clearly not about child protection. It was indicating that the government was a part of this anti-gender discourse, believed in the naturalness of sexual categories and rejected any sort of discussion on the possibility of different types of identities other than mainstream sexuality and gender identities.

Unfortunately, the opposition has not been able to come up with an alternative story that could be persuasive to people. They may be arguing that they will keep all these subsidies and all these benefits, but I do not think that is enough. I think they need a story as well. They need to be able to explain why a more liberal approach to how people live is important. I think that given the fact there is actually a very small proportion of people who live in these types of families that the government targets, there is quite a lot of room to talk about different forms of belonging and different forms of identity that could be persuasive.

The book is open access, so it can be downloaded for free from the website of Palgrave.

In collaboration with Karen Culver, Ferenc Laczo, Michał Matlak and Lucie Janotová

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