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Playing the Big Family Card

The latest in Central Europe’s attempts to boost the birth rate don’t go far enough, but they’re better than nothing. by Martin Ehl 26 August 2014

The newest attempt to improve the lot of large families in Poland has started an interesting discussion. The method of choice these days is called the “Big Family Card” (Karta duzej rodziny), which offers discounts on various goods and services to families with three or more children. That‘s about 627,000 families, totalling 3.4 million people – about one-tenth of the population.


So far, the card has included reduced entry fees into some state institutions, such as Warsaw’s National Stadium, or a 5 percent discount at the luxurious food chain Alma or 10 percent off at Vistula clothing shops. Those last discounts have been ridiculed, since most big families can‘t even dream of shopping in such expensive places.


The government also recently signed agreements with 13 additional companies to offer perks such as substantial discounts on textbooks or on services from private medical companies as well as free entry to view the terrace of Krakow’s Balice airport.


Immediately, there arose a wave of criticism online that many of the companies involved are just seeking good press. But such a simplistic dismissal of the initiative isn’t fair. Similar cards are already working in more than 200 Polish villages and cities, and it might be worth it to try such a program on a national scale. It is, admittedly, a rather desperate attempt to support families, but still a needed one – at least to jump-start further initiatives. Poles are dying out, with a fertility rate of 1.3 children per woman, well under the rate of 2.1 needed to keep the population stable.


A recent article in Visegrad Insight magazine called demography in Central Europe “The V4’s greatest existential threat.” A comparable problem exists in other Western European countries, such as Germany, with one important difference: the four Visegrad countries – Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia – are not a popular target for immigration and are not welcoming to immigrants.


Central European governments are thus looking for other solutions. But instead of offering systemic changes in labor codes to help families raise children or supporting day care centers and kindergartens (formerly widespread), they come up with things like the Big Family Card. It makes nice headlines but the real impact is doubtful. And Poles are not alone in their penchant for such policies – if we can even call them that.


Following the defeat of Robert Fico, the prime minister, in the Slovak presidential elections in March, his ruling Smer-Social Democracy party unveiled a surprise package of proposals to ease some of the burden for specific groups. They included an increase in the minimum wage, lower natural gas prices for households, free train travel for students and pensioners, and lower taxes and social payments for low-income groups. These ideas target families with more children indirectly, because more direct support could get the government into a tricky situation – the highest fertility rate in Slovakia is among the Roma minority, which is ostracized by the majority, mired in poverty, and dependent heavily on state social support.


It’s a similar story in Hungary, where there is also a strong Roma minority with a high fertility rate. But the family policy there is quite different. The government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban has attempted to boost the population by offering Hungarian citizenship to members of Hungarian minorities in neighboring countries, lowering taxes for families (those with three or more children pay almost no taxes), and carving out increased family support in the state budget.


Czech politicians are closer to their Slovak counterparts. To get a child into a local kindergarten (and his or her mother back to work) demands almost greater effort than to get a high school student into university. To have a child means significantly lower income, and mothers are ostracized on the labor market, which offers almost no part-time jobs for parents. In June, parliament approved a proposal to allow so-called children‘s groups to be created in companies or public institutions to provide day care. Due to strict hygiene rules these centers cannot be called proper kindergartens, but they could help parents a lot.


Not much else is on offer in the Czech Republic. There is no tax advantage for large families comparable to the one in Hungary. There isn’t even something like the Big Family Card on the horizon. Nothing, in short, signals that politicians sense the looming demographic danger.


Czechs could therefore envy Poles their debate about the card and Hungarians their new tax system – even with their misguided approaches to encouraging citizens, in the long term, to have more children. The Polish idea is more of a PR exercise than real help, while the Hungarian one will overburden public finances. But they are better than the lack of policies that we see in the Czech Republic and almost nothing we hear from Slovakia.

Martin Ehl
is the foreign editor of the Czech daily 
Hospodarske noviny. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.
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