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Marriage, and why we need to talk about Hungary

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DURING the lockdown restrictions of 2020, marriage rates fell in every country in Europe except one: Hungary. My new report from Marriage Foundation shows that 23 per cent fewer couples married in Western European countries such as France, Germany and the Netherlands, while the drop was an astonishing 42 per cent in the Mediterranean countries of Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece. In Hungary, marriage rates rose by 3 per cent to the highest levels in Europe. 

The UK has yet to publish data on 2020 weddings. But with the draconian restrictions all but banning weddings early on followed by tight restrictions and petty micromanagement later, Britain will surely follow the European pattern.

Why does this matter and what can we learn from Hungary?

Let’s start with first principles. The primary reason why states and societies across the world and throughout history have regulated marriage is to encourage men to invest in their future offspring. As couples, love might be our primary motivation, but that is not the state’s business or interest. 

Since the 1970s, to marry or not to marry has become increasingly optional. What changed was the introduction of the contraceptive pill that liberated women from the risk of pregnancy. It also introduced for the first time the possibility of living together as a couple without getting married.  

What hasn’t changed is human nature. Humans are most likely to stick at things when we make decisions and plans before acting, and especially when we tell others about our plan and gain their support. With a clear plan, everyone knows where they stand, whether you’re on the inside as part of the plan or on the outside looking in. We’re all on the same page. Any lingering doubts and ambiguities are banished. That’s precisely why the psychology of marriage is so compelling. It begins with the question ‘Will you spend the rest of your life with me?’ and is followed by the public celebration of the response in front of family and friends. Sure, plans don’t always work out. But most do because they start with a clear plan and social affirmation. 

The hard evidence that marriage makes a difference is abundant. Couples who marry are more likely to stay together than those who don’t marry across the social, economic and ethnic spectrum. Their children are less likely to experience serious childhood problems. Yes, there’s an academic debate about whether it’s the act of marriage or the kind of people who marry that matters (invariably ignoring the psychology described above). And yes, marriage is no panacea. Some marriages are dreadful and best ended. But what is not in doubt is that being married stacks the odds in your favour and in your family’s favour. 

In the UK, we have seen marriage rates decline by three quarters from their 1970s peak. Even in the year before lockdown, 6 per cent fewer couples married. But what these figures don’t show is the huge social divide in marriage rates. Among births in the higher income groups 75 per cent of parents are married. In the lower income groups it’s 35 per cent, and half of that in the ‘unclassified’ group. 

What’s interesting about Hungary is that, almost uniquely, they have turned the tide. As I showed in my report for Marriage Foundation, marriage rates in Hungary have risen 92 per cent since 2010. So what can we learn from the country? 

In 2010, the socially conservative Hungarian government decided to do something about its collapsing and ageing population. Populations need a fertility rate of 2.1 to replace themselves: that’s one boy and one girl and a bit extra to account for women who don’t have children. In Hungary the fertility rate was 1.2 compared with an overall EU rate of 1.6, well below replacement. So they introduced a stream of ‘family friendly’ policies that included housing and personal loans and other benefits for those who had up to three children. The result is that Hungary’s fertility rate has risen faster than any other country in Europe to 1.6, just above the EU average which is now down to 1.5. 

Some of their policies specifically favoured married couples, such that loans were available to couples who promised to have up to three children, but only if they were married. If they didn’t deliver, the loans had to be paid back. If they were married and had all three children, the loans were and are written off. Newlyweds also receive a two-year reduction in income tax. These are pretty big incentives to marry. This is what seems to lie behind the near doubling of marriage rates, against the worldwide downtrend. 

In the UK, we are a very long way from anything like this. The government will tell you they back marriage with a transferable tax allowance for low income couples worth up to £250 per year. But the flipside is that they will take away thousands of pounds in tax credits or universal credit if you live together, let alone marry. This is the perverse anti-marriage ‘couple penalty’ that most low income women know about but almost no politician does. Meanwhile most politicians embrace marriage enthusiastically in their private lives – eight out of ten current cabinet members are married – yet not one of them has said a word about marriage in the past decade. 

We need to talk about Hungary.

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Harry Benson
Harry Benson
Harry Benson is research director for Marriage Foundation and a PhD student of social policy at University of Bristol.

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