Farewell to our social rights? Hungarian governments and their most vulnerable groups

Zsuzsanna Vidra

Hungary has gained a dubious reputation lately for its conservative right wing government (in power since 2010) taking a whole series of undemocratic steps. Some of these have reached the European political and public sphere, such as the media law against which leftist parties protested in the European Parliament, or the forced early retirement of judges ruled incompatible with EU law by the Court of Justice of the European Union.

Although the government’s rhetoric tends to frame European criticisms as some leftist conspiracy, it is hard not to notice how the democratic institutions and values, as well as the rights of the citizens, be it political, civil or social, have been increasingly violated since the current government won a two-thirds mandate.

Successive austerity measures have hit the most vulnerable worst in all countries. Nonetheless, one may argue, the vulnerable are even more defenceless in a political environment where all pillars of democracy are being weakened as in the case of Hungary in 2012.

In today’s Hungary the poor suffer from the attacks of the present political regime that has openly declared its intention to create a strong national middle class based on a firm work ethic principle. As the Prime Minister, Mr Orbán stated, “all countries have to undertake the correction of their welfare state. It is more difficult in the West because there they have well-established welfare regimes while it is less difficult in Central Europe because the welfare state has not been constructed here. (…) Our program is to create a society based on work instead of the uncompetitive Western type of welfare state.”[1]

By saying this, the government suggests that welfare dependency is to be blamed for the crises (at least partially) and it is high time to get away from this paradigm. It hopes to achieve the work-based society by introducing – along with many other measures conceived in the same spirit – a public work scheme for the poor, a necessary precondition to be entitled to (a reduced) social assistance (approximately 80 Euros per month), the cutting of the period of unemployment benefit (so as to be the shortest in Europe), the tightening of the eligibility criteria to disability benefits and the repeal of the disability pension, and the criminalization of homelessness by passing a bill that punishes those living on the streets.

In reality, these measures gravely violate the rights of the most vulnerable and sometimes lead to circumstances where the basic needs of the poor are not met. The unemployed, the poor, the disabled, the homeless are treated as second class citizens deprived of their basic rights and with no means to protest.

How has Hungary become a country where the disadvantaged exist in such a precarious situation? First and foremost, it is necessary to see that the democratic transition in 1990 and the accession to the EU all had the positive effects of establishing and reinforcing institutions that guaranteed the respect of social rights. It is questionable though whether Hungarian social citizenship in the post-1990 era has been fully guaranteed or not. Many would argue that the social rights of the most vulnerable have always suffered significantly and that none of the successive governments have tried to face this challenge full-heartedly. On the other hand, retrospectively, one is tempted to say that until the current government came into power we used to have an imperfect system but it was still more respectful of social rights and more protective of the defenceless.

In the mid-2000s something changed dramatically with regards to how certain social groups started to be perceived and treated by the political elite and the public. Before the global economic crisis, Hungary was already in a state of enduring political crisis. The extreme political polarization of the country —there was a political culture of mutual hate between the left-liberal and the conservative forces — was one of the factors that led to the rise of the far right (the party becoming the third most important political force in the 2010 elections). It was accompanied by the radicalization of the public discourse whereby scapegoating became widespread in public and print, often irrespective of the political side. The far right threw popular and populist topics on the agenda that the mainstream parties had to engage with. Thus, well before the crisis, Hungarian public discourse was full of talk of ‘the lazy and parasitical Roma’, ‘the welfare-dependent poor’, etc.  The then ruling Socialist party finally let the populist wave snatch it and started to introduce social policy measures that pleased the growing popular need to punish the scapegoats.

Public work instead of benefits. The new workfare regime

One of the most dubious of the policies of the Socialists was the “Road to work” program introduced in 2009. As the then Prime Minister Mr Gyurcsány said, “our new Social Act is the most important Social and Labor Reform Act since the regime change because it puts emphasis on job creation instead of social assistance.”[2] While the idea was to help the unemployed to reintegrate into the job market, all experts warned that this scheme was very expensive for the state and it was a completely useless instrument to enable the unemployed to find work on the primary labor market (mainly because the majority are low skilled, long-term unemployed and live in poor, remote geographical areas with no job opportunities). At the same time, this labor policy measure resonated well with those who believed that there should be no social assistance without work.

With the new government, the objective of reintegration has been fully replaced by the ideology of “welfare for work” (in fact only about 7 percent of public work employees find employment in the current job market)[3]. The public work scheme with a multiplied budget under the current government is extremely expensive, ineffective and criminalizes the unemployed, but looks good in the statistics: two-thirds of the new jobs in the country come from the public work figures that reduce the unemployment rate to under 10 percent[4].

Unskilled public workers have to work for approximately 165 Euros per month, which is actually more than many people receive, as most are not employed on an eight-hour work contract so their wage comes to less, or they are employed on a temporary basis. While they are out of the public work scheme they receive social assistance that is around 80 Euros per month[5]. One could ask why would anybody choose to be on social assistance rather than work in the public work scheme if (s)he can take home twice as much? The answer is simple: because it is far from being one’s choice if (s)he is in or out. Actually these poor people are stripped of all their rights to decide about anything: since the scheme finances work only for some but not for all, they are included if the local government finds the person suitable for work – the criteria of which is not defined but contingent upon the good or bad will of the local authorities. In addition, the unemployed has to accept any job he or she is offered otherwise the person is expelled from the scheme. Moreover, if they are unlucky and don’t have at least 30 registered working days for the previous year (perhaps because the local authorities decide they are lazy, or they have a conflict with their supervisor), they lose their entitlement to the 80 Euros social assistance. In fact, instead of welfare dependency the Hungarian government managed to reinforce arbitrary authority dependency, a peculiar ‘Hungarian model’ that the decadent Western welfare states should appreciate and start copying. 

“Stop treating us as criminals, we are sick people!” Workfare for the disabled

The new workfare regime has hit the disabled hard as well. The government abolished the disability pension and replaced it with a disability and rehabilitation allowance. The aim was multifaceted, on the one hand to reintegrate those on the job market whose condition allows them to work (the government estimated that out of the 900,000 disabled about 220,000 could be reintegrated), and on the other hand, to save some 300 million Euros. For this reason the disabled have to go to a compulsory medical check-up so that their level of disability is re-examined. The workfare system of the disabled, however, got derailed to the extent that now about forty percent of them receive a reduced allowance (approx. 170 Euros) without being able to find a job. Moreover, the government did not save a Euro cent on the reform either, while its implementation imposed tremendous suffering on the disabled and violated their various rights.

The government’s economic policy action plan says: “In Hungary, the high level of the abuse of the disability assessment system has an extremely negative impact on the activity rate. Its consequence is that the proportion of disabled is twice as high as in the other countries of the region. This difference cannot be justified by any circumstances; there are just simply not that many Hungarians who cannot work because of some disability or illness.”[6] Or, as the head of the Rehabilitation Authority pointed out: “in the last twenty years people have been accustomed to getting benefits. But they are not entitled to these benefits on a universal basis.” 

In sharp contrast to what the official document claims, disabled rights groups affirm that there are no data that would prove this high proportion of abuse (about 1-2 percent is known to be the proportion of cases where disability is declared “rehabilitated”, but even these might not be the results of abuse). Instead of the abuse of the system, we should rather see it as an unfortunate legacy of the past: after the regime change it has become a widespread practice to get entitlement to disability pension that basically substituted unemployment insurance. 

As part of the implementation of the reform all disabled are obliged to go for a medical check-up to have their level of disability re-examined and revised, including those who have two legs missing.  And, of course, they themselves have to pay for their trip to the medical center. More than that, the fact that the disability pension has been replaced by a disability and rehabilitation allowance, the entitled persons are deprived of their earlier protected status as a pensioner (e.g. the amount of pension cannot be changed whereas the amount of allowance can easily be modified) and with the new law, they are not entitled anymore to free public transport and other reduced fees that pensioners are getting. On top of all that, we should not forget that stripping citizens of their earlier legal status is contradictory to the principles of the constitutional state in Hungary.

Government policies trying to re-integrate the disabled into the job market is a well-intended and legitimate aim. However, figures show that 90 percent of those who now are entitled to rehabilitation allowance – so their health condition is assessed as improvable – cannot find a job. The Secretary General of the Confederation of Hungarian Employers and Industrialists said about the job market re-integration of the disabled that “in the middle of the crises only very few employers can take disabled employees even if they get tax reduction. Only by the government’s will to re-integrate the disabled in the job market, there will be no more new jobs.”[7]

The humiliating procedure of medical check-ups, the illegitimate change of the legal status of the disabled, the creation of a situation where most of the disabled find themselves in a more desperate and precarious situation than before, the establishment of a workfare regime for the disabled without available jobs echo in the desperate voices of some disabled people:

“This is euthanasia they are doing. They couldn’t offer me any job, and it would be impossible anyway since I have to see the doctor five times a week. I am now officially less disabled than before, I get 140 Euros, in winter time my heating costs 160 Euros.”

“I find it repellent what the government is doing with the disabled! They behave as if they were facing criminals upon whom they had to pass a sentence.”[8]

“If we don’t push them out, then they will do that to us!”[9] Criminalization of homelessness

Another vulnerable group seen as idle, burdensome, thus worthy of being despised and criminalised, is the homeless. Living on the street has become seen as a “lifestyle”, as if it was a personal choice of these people. Treating homelessness as a criminal act instead of a social problem is well-illustrated by the mayor of Budapest saying that “we have no means to place the homeless in the (luxury) Kempinski hotel.”

The anti-homeless legislation started in 2011 with the city of Budapest deciding to punish homelessness by declaring it a criminal offence for which people could be fined up to 175 Euros. This was followed by a referendum on homelessness held in the 8th district (one of the poorest districts of the capital where many homeless people live). In the referendum, which was finally invalid because of the low turnout, people were asked if they wanted the local government to prohibit the “lifestyle of living in the street”. Local initiatives became so popular with the political elite that a couple of months later the Parliament, with the support of the governing party and the far right party, passed the law punishing homelessness. However, after less than a year, the Hungarian Constitutional Court repealed the law and ordered a review of the verdicts on “homeless offences”.

Cities and mayors often fight homelessness by passing criminal laws in different parts of the world. However, one may wonder if there is any another country where the criminalization of homelessness might be coded in the constitution. The Prime Minister reacted to the decision of the Constitutional Court by labelling it “nonsense” and warning everyone that the government can change the constitution. If it did so, it would not be surprising, as the Fidesz government made the new constitution without the consent of Parliament or holding a referendum.. The right to have a home is not in the constitution but punishing people who do not have one and are forced to live on the street may become constitutional if the government decides to change the constitution.


Hungary lost its leading regional position a long time ago and found itself among the poorest and least developed countries in the CEE region. The setback is manifest in all social, economic and political areas, the reasons of which are obviously very complex and multifaceted. The criminalization of the poor is a clear sign of the decline, as well as the workfare programs because they are immensely ineffective while they fuel and reinforce populist sentiments and prevent governments from looking for real solutions. And apparently, Hungary is still heading downwards with its series of anti-poor, anti-unemployed, anti-disabled and anti-homeless policies.

[9] Mayor of the 8th district of Budapest.