Overcoming false dichotomies – in discussions about demography issues and beyond

The discourse surrounding the ‘role of women’ is a privileged issue within Hungarian debate on demographic policy. These debates about ‘the female principle’ or ‘women’s autonomy’ often narrow the scope of the issue to a simple culture war, and thus ignore the lived reality of many. Instead of focusing on someone’s choice of having or not having children or how to aid population growth with specific policies, debating the potential of the welfare state within the global economy would be a more useful strategy.

Although extending nursery daycare is a good concept, it is only going to come into effect symbolically, as councils are not ready to provide the service for children 3 years old or younger” – said Jenő Schmidt, chairman of The Nationwide Association of Local Governments (TÖOSZ) a few weeks ago to the Hungarian right-wing daily Magyar Idők.

The new legislation, coming into effect from January, requires the council of each town with 10,000 or fewer inhabitants to provide nursery daycare in cases where there are at least 40 children under 3 years of age, or five parents who request daycare.

Good initiative in the framing of population growth

This might be a good idea, and yet the government seems to have forgotten – again – to provide adequate resources to execute the plan.

At a meeting this November of the Ministry of Justice’s working group responsible for women’s rights, Attila Beneda, State Secretary of the Ministry of Human Resources responsible for family policy and demographic policy, has said that the daycare expansion plan is justified by the demographic situation. After all, these are major issues in Hungary, so it’s important to give women a choice.

It is worth recalling that children usually have fathers who are concerned about their upbringing, and ideally, women’s well-being and choices are not only important because to population policy they are a strategically important group (they are, after all, the ones giving birth) but because they themselves are important (they are citizens).

With all this in mind, the daycare extension policy is still a welcome initiative. In recent years, the number of daycare places for children of three years of age and under has grown from 11% to 16%. This is a very positive change, and we should continue down this path, regardless of what anybody thinks about ‘a woman’s place’ or a ‘child’s place’ in their first three years of life.

Because the reality is that a single person’s salary in today’s Hungary is not enough to sustain a family. The breadwinner husband – housekeeper wife myth is not an option for the vast majority of Hungarians. And like it or not, but 20% of all families is comprised of single-parent households (of which 86% feature women as the breadwinners) so there is no real choice between “work or family”. This is a false dichotomy.

Femininity vs Female Autonomy

The debate surrounding women’s role in society usually centers around the two conflicting opposites of “femininity” versus “women’s autonomy”. This is a false dichotomy too, since it presents hard, down-to earth material issues as matters of attitude and ideology, thereby obscuring the lived reality of most people.

Those who argue that the most sacred task of women is motherhood, and that the family is the main building block of society rightfully recognize that we do not live for GDP, our worth as human beings does not equal our value on the labour market. They rightly note that the approach which focusses on individual success and performance neglects our caring and nurturing side and our dependency on each other.
However, they are wrong to attribute the worldview they criticize to individual selfishness or character fault. They understand the fault within the system, but to counter the ills of the precarious, contemporary condition all they offer is ‘traditional values’ to provide a sense of security against the ills of the condition, and the so-called ‘traditional family’, maybe even complemented by ideas of ‘active fatherhood’. Ľubica Kobová rightly points out that the fault of this argument is that the family (and even then, only traditional families) are deemed good and valuable, and are supposed to be so each and every time.

The criticism of selfishness is accompanied by the encouragement of traditional and unequal gender roles, for example the idealization of the “self-sacrificing woman”.

But this criticism nonetheless forgets that we know from historical research that the nuclear family (breadwinner father, caring mother, and children) is a modern creation. It appeared alongside the industrial revolution, as previously the distinction between public and private space was not so clear, and so the former was not man’s and the latter was not woman’s domain. Women were not expected to provide care alone: larger communities raised children and cared for the elderly together.

The issue recognized adequately by the side of the debate representing emancipation is that in Hungary the social costs of parenthood are still disproportionately borne by women. Providing for a family and keeping a household is no picnic, and women do so on a daily basis, without complaint.

The need to engage with these taboo topics is demonstrated by the existence of countless personal and online groups where mothers honestly share their not-quite-so blessed experiences and feelings. Those who represent this side of the debate also realise that without the further engagement of men in the household, neither the labour market  nor the political status of women is going to improve.

However, we need to realize that this is not only a matter of attitude and culture. Those emphasize that neither the state nor men should interfere with women’s decisions, or (for example) consider 3 years parental leave  a form of coercion and social pressure, do not take into account that paid work is not self-realization for most women (nor, indeed, for most men).

For a lot of women, three years of parental leave is a holiday away from a precarious existence defined by the labour market – a kind of resting period. Furthermore, it is not going to be enough to campaign for men to take out parental leave if, due to the wage difference between men and women (and among professions typically done by men or women), families cannot afford this option. It is futile to say that men should do more housework if the labour market only considers a constantly available man who is unburdened by care work counts a “reliable employee”.

Instead of waging a culture war, we should engage with material reality

By the way, whether ideologically conservative or emancipatory, most women’s organizations stand for the recognition of the importance of fatherhood, and for the greater involvement of men in the household. Drawing a strict ideological boundary is, therefore, not especially useful, and even more so because most people’s lived reality is not shaped by these kinds of ideological frontiers. And whether one may be able to implement this or that principle in their day-to-day life is often beyond their capability.

It is therefore not useful to revert to the culture war narrative, where the traditional, the secure, the family-oriented faces off against the selfish, the individualistic, the so-called ‘hordes of singles’ (obviously, men are never ‘singles’).

Or, viewed from the other side, the emancipated, forward-looking, progressive camp faces off against the reactionary woman-haters stuck on the wrong side of history.

I’m not suggesting that one should not have the right to campaign for value systems that are important to them. What I say is that the problems are not necessarily rooted in someone’s given individual attitude, but in material reality, and therefore cannot be solely addressed on a rhetorical level.

If we are only willing to engage with the issue as a matter of attitude, it should come as no surprise that the masses are not going to be willing to provide their support. But it is also a problem with these two approaches that they ignore the socio-economic environment of these seemingly cultural and moral issues.

What sort of economic system is one where precarity is the norm, where 70% of people have no spare funds, where the so-called full time eight-hour day job is not compatible with raising a child? The material basis of such an economic system is the ‘productivity’  of paid work, which is based on the condition that someone is always pushed into the unpaid sector – typically women, whose unpaid labour is often considered to be an inexhaustible resource, when in fact it is not. Such issues cannot be remedied by a change in individual attitude.

Individuals should not be responsible for creating a welfare state

There is a whole system in place to make us believe that if more children were born, the pension system could be sustainable – but before we get there, some cuts have to be implemented and there is not going to be enough money for education. When I talk about a system, I do not mean our national sport, football corruption.

The welfare state is a far more complex matter than a simple equation like ‘enough children = more money for pensions’. It is therefore not fair to put pressure on individuals to solve the country’s (demographic) crisis.
The power transnational economic actors have over politics is coded into the global economic system. Whether nation-states have room for manoeuvre depends on how embedded they are in that system. For example, this means that East-Central-Europe is involved in the dynamics of today’s global value chains through competition for the factories of the assembly industry with cheap labour. This has implications regarding to what extent a state may or may not develop their own employment policy or social policy.
The race to the bottom is on for investment – regarding, for example, tax policy and labour laws and regulations. To put simply: investment is going to happen where it pays off to invest, where there is little tax and the unions don’t make trouble. In such places where the labour market is flexible, which means there are fixed-term employment contracts and employees are easy to dismiss. For example, more than quarter of Polish employees have to (of course they enter the contract ‘voluntarily’) work based on a kind of civil contract which provides no protection under the Labour Code (for example in the case of pregnancy or illness).

This issue is just one of the many elements structuring the economy and the labour market which reduces the likelihood of developing a welfare system. We become indignant when people fear for their safety (“should have faced the competition”) or we talk about character flaws (“those who want children should not abstain from having them for financial reasons, there are always problems, there is never enough money”). There is an economic system which places the blame squarely on the individual for failures – even when they are unable to find a job, despite the fact that there are entire regions where there is no investment.

That is, on the one hand we can observe that individuals are held accountable for systemic issues: “We are going to be able to create the welfare state, if enough of you are willing to give birth. This is a prerequisite, and unfortunately until then we can’t”.  On the other hand, the same logic is present in the ignorant belief that if the right policies are presented, problems plaguing individuals and even states can be successfully solved. The world is burning and yet we play chess with family policy. This obviously does not absolve the individual states from doing their best with the existing opportunities they have – instead of burdening their citizens with things beyond their agency.

The debate concerning population decline hides the substance

As of today, the inactivity rate of 15-64 year olds in Hungary is at 32% (and the communal workers and the unemployed are already included in the remaining 68%). In other words: this segment of the working age population is economically dependent, just in the same way that there is no guarantee that children born today are going to stay in the country and become useful, tax contributing citizens. Not because of any unwillingness to work, but after 10+ years in a gradually declining education system they would have to survive in an increasingly precarious labour market.

Each and every demographic forecast makes it clear that the trend of the decline cannot be reversed. Even if the fertility rate were successfully boosted a little bit higher (and certain family policy toolkits can undoubtedly stimulate it) the slightly higher birth rate of fewer and fewer people cannot reverse the trend. Therefore instead of burdening families with the responsibility of sustaining or producing welfare provisions, it would be worth checking the possibility of improving the conditions of the welfare state within a broader international environment.

I am not saying that the state has no responsibility or no possibilities when it comes to balancing the social risks of parenthood.

These days even the Hungarian government realized that telling women how wonderful and valuable children are (something we already know) is not going to make women more willing to give birth.

And they realized as well that such a decision is linked to a number of social factors. For example, it is a good idea to spend resources on building daycare facilities, even if – God forbid – this might not boost the fertility rate. And this measure – contrary to former ones explicitly targeting  the middle class and above – even helps the less well-off.

Otherwise, besides/instead of trying to boost the fertility rate, attention should be paid to the other end of the “demographic crisis” as well: it is a fact that we live longer and are going to be more reliant on care services. Elderly care schemes, both outside and within the institutional framework are in a disastrous condition. And if we do nothing, things are only going to get worse.

I’m not saying that nothing should be done regarding social awareness of these issues. “It is good to be a father”; “change the diapers, live longer”; these are all important messages when women have to work like a dog, and we still talk about men “helping out” with housework.

But expecting a solution to structural problems from either individuals or policy (and a baby boom) is neither fair nor realistic. If accessible and high quality healthcare, education and care infrastructure are important to us, then it’s better to start asking some bigger questions. And instead of engaging in culture wars we should try to find solutions to real problems arising from the material, lived reality of people.

Daycare building and providing a choice regarding childcare could be just such a solution.


Eszter Kováts holds a BA in Sociology, and an MA in Political Science & French and German Studies. She is a PhD student in Political Science at ELTE University Budapest. She has been working in the Hungarian Office of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung since 2009, and since 2012 she is responsible for the Foundation’s gender programme for East-Central Europe. In 2015 she co-edited the volume “Gender as Symbolic Glue. The position and role of conservative and far right parties in the anti-gender mobilizations in Europe”, in 2016 she edited the volume “Solidarity in Struggle – Feminist Perspectives on Neoliberalism in East-Central Europe”.