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Are You In, or Out? – Public Service in Hungary

Tamás Ragadics and Gusztáv Kovács (Theological College of Pécs, Hungary)

Are You In, or Out? – Public Service in Hungary

In western countries slums and ghettos within big cities are the collecting points of socially disadvantaged groups. But if someone visited Central Europe and Hungary, she would find most of the people living in poverty trapped in rural areas, distant from economic centres. She would see an aging and waning population, since the young and educated tend to move from these peripheral villages to larger cities.  There would also be large numbers of multi-child families, and many Roma people. They would tell her about the high level of unemployment and the diminution of local services. Many of them would live from subsidies provided by the state, or by joining the public service organized by the local council.

Public service gives the chance for the unemployed to make a living and secure social insurance. It aims at a reintegration into the labour market. The tasks of public workers are determined typically by the local council, or, in smaller villages, by the mayor himself. The introduction of public service received heavy criticism in Hungary, but also yielded some apparently good practices. To look at what’s real behind these debates we looked at some small villages in Southeast Hungary, to see how the system of public work has paid off for these settlements.


Case studies

In Cserdi most residents are Roma, just like the mayor. He used to work as a middle manager for a big company, and now uses this experience to supervise an agricultural program in the village. They grow vegetables and sell these at the market. A certain portion of these products are used to support the poor in the city, which is publicized by the media to lower the prejudices against Roma people. The mayor expects hard work from public workers, and exercises strong control over them. It was symbolic how hesitant locals were to answer our questions, and they redirected us to the mayor. There is a broad system of social support in the village, but all benefits are tied to a required lifestyle that conforms to certain social norms. It is the mayor himself who checks the bins of the applicants, and if he finds any alcoholic beverages or cigarettes, he turns down the application by pointing at these “luxury goods”.

The mayor of Markóc, a settlement with only 60 residents, is an expert in ecology, who encourages locals to cultivate their own garden within the framework of public service. He uses his expertise to teach locals basic agricultural skills, and to process the fruit they grow. The future goal of this work is to form a self-sustaining ecological village based on the alliance between local farmers. The mayor views seasonal work and the need to commute long distances as negative for families, tearing them apart. Instead, the mayor encourages the locals to discover the values of their own settlement. However, these people are the deadbeats of consumer society, who desire the goods presented by TV and the services available only in cities. They experience living in a village with a poor transport system as a burden, and would move on if they had the chance. By selling their grounds, they buy only TVs of bigger size.

Gilvánfa is also a village populated exclusively by Romas, where most residents of working age are in public service. They organize work schedules according to the needs of the local households. After a few hours work in the morning, women go home to cook lunch and to look after their small children. They return to public service in the afternoon. This structure helps to accommodate different roles in the family with work, however it takes another step back from integration to the labour market. There is a strong cohesion in Roma families, and these ties trump any efforts toward social integration. Many young fathers following vocational training tend to turn down better paid work in the city just to stay with their families.

The most controversial example for the management of public service was found in Kórós, a village with 200 residents. The level of public security was extremely low here in the past. Usury, theft, and rivalry between gangs were common. The mayor created local regulations to gain control over the situation and imposed taxes on the lands at the frontier of the settlement. He used this source of income to employ security officials and installed 40 video surveillance cameras. These measurements brought the expected result, and now these cameras only serve the amendment of the ways of young smokers, public drinkers and litterers. In Kórós, the central part of public service is gardening. Vegetables produced in polytunnels are sold at the city markets at a comparatively low price. The central principle applied by the mayor is reciprocity: only those who contribute to the development of the community are entitled to support. Residents are required to keep their houses and environment tidy. This notion of reciprocity has resulted in a controversy with the study support centre run by a Catholic foundation, since the mayor accused the centre, through its aid programmes, of creating in its students a sense of entitlement to assistance without a corresponding duty to give anything back in return. The local council has pronounced that the building occupied by the study support centre is to become a development area, and its expropriation is in process.



Following the fall of the socialist system, politics was interested in providing local councils with a stronger mandate than before. Thus mayors became eminent actors in the local field of power.  They have a huge role now in supporting the indigents and motivating them through the organization of public service. In small villages local elections often turn out to be clashes between familial alliances. Democratic values often seem to fail, and patriarchal models are sustained. These structures reflect the degree of socialization of the residents, who often lack sufficient democratic skills. In the short term, this devolved power structure offers efficiency by reducing decision-making mechanisms. However, in the long term, it raises serious questions.

It is obvious that one of the prerequisites to overcome poverty is the change in consumer behaviour and lifestyle. But is any mayor entitled to achieve this through regulation of social benefits and by expanding local authority over the private sphere? A further question is whether public service leads to a certain decline in mobility. The rate of income is low, however it provides the locals with a sense of stability and safety. Nonetheless, the marketing of agricultural goods produced through public service supported by the state lowers the chances of other small producers on the regional markets. These problems call for regulations, which go beyond here-and-now political interest, and create a concert of principles such as personhood, justice, subsidiarity, solidarity and sustainability.