Estonian political parties tend to narrowly define population policy in their campaign platforms as policy aimed exclusively at families, write Estonian Institute for Population Studies research fellows Liili Abuladze and Luule Sakkeus.
Two trends emerge when examining the family policy included in Estonian political parties' current campaign platforms. At the center of conservative parties' platforms — Isamaa and the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) — are families with large numbers of children. The needs of more vulnerable target groups are hardly addressed in their platforms, nor are the inequality-increasing effects of a support system based on family size, not economic opportunities.
Other parties' platforms commit to reducing social inequality, helping the more vulnerable as well as improving the accessibility of services. The exception is the Center Party, whose platform is a hybrid of the two aforementioned approaches and likewise one of the most vague.
Promises made by Isamaa, which sought to raise family policy as a key election issue ahead of the Riigikogu elections, focus not so much on children and the environment they need as direct financial support. The promise to increase monthly support payments for first and second children to €100 seeks to correct certain mistakes made in the fertility-reducing impact of the recently adopted family benefits system. The latter focused on families with many children, thus making Isamaa's promises self-fulfilling.
Isamaa likewise wants to increase the income tax exemption to €5,000 per child being raised in the family, double the pension coefficient per child as well as allow for promises from married spouses' joint income tax returns. These measures are expensive, but don't directly improve the accessibility of services necessary for raising children (e.g. childcare and other support services).
New marriage referendum?
Also included in Isamaa's family policy is valuing the institution of marriage. The party wants to initiate amending Estonia's Constitution to improve the legal protection of marriage between a man and a woman as a guarantee of the survival of the Estonian nation.
Such protection of values denying Estonian reality rather reduces cohesion and may instead cause a negative effect on family formation. In a context where the institution of the traditional family is strong, such measures may rule out family formation precisely for those young people who are oriented moreso toward diversity in cohabitation.
Research has found that measures directly supporting birth rates may in some cases actually prompt the opposite behavioral response as the marginalization and insecurity perceived by younger generations grows.
Worth highlighting as a clear measure to improve young parents' situations is Isamaa's plan to ensure that parents returning to work from parental leave are compensated commensurate with their average wages when taking sick leave to care for an ill child. This will reduce poverty in young families and increase overall confidence in better being able to get by.
More vulnerable unprotected
Also standing out in Isamaa's campaign promises is the fact that little attention is paid to improving vulnerable groups' circumstances, with the exception of a promise "to pay particular attention to the prevention of child abuse and domestic violence and to supporting victims of violence." That is precisely how generally this is stated in the platform.
While Isamaa is promising to reinstate the opportunity for married couples to file their taxes jointly together with related benefits, the Reform Party is promising to extend that opportunity to registered partners as well.
Extending this opportunity to just registered partnerships alone doesn't in fact set Reform significantly apart from Isamaa, however, as this actually expands the scope of those covered very little due to the ongoing lack of implementing provisions in force in connection with the Registered Partnership Act.
What would help boost young people's sense of security is expanding the opportunity to cohabiting couples more generally, e.g. couples registered at a single residence together.
Reform lacking in specifics
The Reform Party's promises often remain vague. For example, it's impossible to understand what the promise means to "support both parents in a flexible work-life balance." To some extent, this idea is reflected in contributing to the development of employee- and family-friendly and diversity-supporting jobs at companies, however the Reform Party is lacking in specificity on measures to this end.
Promises also include to support families and children "primarily on an as-needed basis." This demands trained specialists capable of determining the need for aid, however. Similarly to the health field, evidence-based preventive programs should increasingly be implemented in helping children and families, which would reduce the overall need for assistance.
Only a few scant prevention promises can be found in election platforms. Both Isamaa and the Social Democratic Party (SDE), for example, promise to contribute to parent education — the former by raising funding for the field to €2 million a year, and SDE promising to establish community prevention and family centers across Estonia.
Reform differs from Isamaa — but also EKRE and Center — in its valuing of single parents. They promise in general terms that "the principles of the state support of single parents will be modernized." The party likewise acknowledges that the latest family support reform has increased inequality for parents of one and two children and promises to shift the focus of attention in the matter.
Similarly to Isamaa, the Reform Party promises to remedy the issue involving sick pay for those returning to work from parental leave based on a parent's current income. Research generally suggests avoiding the manipulation of sick leave by basing sick pay not on current income but rather that of a specific reference point, such as one's average income prior to going on parental leave.
Unlike Isamaa, Reform is also addressing the topic of access to services, for example by promising to abolish kindergarten fees. In the Nordic context, such a measure has had some effect on family formation among lower income earners, but also on children's improved cognitive abilities.
Social Democrats, Eesti 200 similar
Unlike Isamaa, EKRE and to some extent Center, and more like SDE and the Reform Party, Eesti 200's family policy is directed toward improving the overall sense of security of economically more vulnerable population groups — chiefly greater attention to issues related to disabled children — as well as certain compensation of the effects of economic developments and price increases on families.
One distinctive and progressive promise is to equalize the length of undividable paid parental leave to an equal six months for each parent. The measure is aimed at promoting a more equal division of labor at home, but also reducing the spillover of the pay gap into retirement.
The impact of gender equality on family formation has long since been discussed in the Nordic context, when not taking recent years' events into consideration. Likewise apropos is the plan to increase the rate of sick pay for mothers caring for sick children from the current 80 percent to 100 percent of income, as is the promise to find a fairer solution for those who end up caring for a sick child shortly after returning to work from parental leave (albeit similarly to the Reform Party and Isamaa).
How exactly to involve fathers more in childcare should be considered as well. Similarly to the SDE, Eesti 200 promises to index all child benefits, which supports families' future security and would allow for child benefits to be removed from future political election squabbles.
Social Democrats want to introduce a cost of living coefficient for the calculation of parental leave benefits in cases where two or more children are born in a row, meaning that they have a similar but more dynamic view than Eesti 200 on support which also takes the effects of the economic cycle into account.
The SDE's plan to expand the provision of domestic and other services to families of children who need them, meanwhile, is in fact a continuation of changes that are already underway.
The real biggest concern right now is funding local governments' services in a way that avoids significant inequality arising in the provision of services. The measure does promote a cohesive work-life balance, but implementing it will be made more difficult by not just the underfunding of local governments, but also the need for extensive training for service providers.
In terms of improved work-life balance, it's important to note that the SDE considers it necessary to offer career counseling and training to those who have returned to work following parental leave. Similarly to Isamaa, the Social Democrats are likewise prepared to provide couples' counseling and support parent education. The SDE also supports the development of family reconciliation services meeting uniform quality standards.
Parental benefits for grandparents?
The Center Party's family policy makes mention of the words "family car." Namely, the party wants to introduce support measures for the purchase of a family car as well as for fixing up the homes of families with several children. Likewise a distinctive promise is the recognition of family-friendly businesses, as well as plans to increase the flexibility of Estonia's current parental benefits system, allowing parental benefits to be paid in part to grandparents.
It appears as though the Center Party has started to outbid Isamaa with its platform. Unlike Isamaa, however, Center has also paid attention to low-income families, families raising disabled children as well as single-parent families, for whom they promise to increase existing support measures as well as introduce additional ones.
Similarly to SDE and Eesti 200, the Center Party also considers it necessary to index child benefits, as well as increase the age limit on receiving these benefits to 21. Nonetheless, no reasoning for the latter is given, as current legislation permits for child benefits to be paid through the completion of secondary education, which apparently covers the age limit being increased.
EKRE's election promises are the most expensive. In large part they overlap with Isamaa's: tax breaks for families with many children, pension supplements, home loan benefits. EKRE wants to establish affordable home loans and forgive a quarter of them for the birth of each new child. Benefits and support distributed based merely on the number of children alone, not on needs, increase economic and social inequality.
Likewise promised is a student loan and study grants reform and the forgiving of half of an individual's student loan debt if they have one child in the family and the student loan debt in full if they have two or more kids in the family. The assumption appears to be based on past trends that this could reduce the age at which one first gives birth, thus in turn impacting a possible increase in the birth rate (due to a longer so-called family formation window). At the same time, the impact of this measure would be small, as the majority delay having a child until they have gained secure employment.
Families out to the countryside
The Estonian Greens are one of few parties that make explicit mention of local governments. The party is promising to allocate money to local governments and help them develop principles for compensating childcare in a way that would allow a child to be cared for and their parents to work.
Interestingly, a regional policy family measure has made its way into the family policy chapter of the Greens' election platform that would more likely have been expected from Isamaa.
The party wants to launch a housing program offering families the opportunity via local governments to acquire property in a small city, town or small town under favorable conditions. Families settling in remote areas, meanwhile, are promised grants for housing renovations equal to one tenth of the property's purchase price and the condition of the property.
Similarly to the Reform party, the Greens are promising free kindergarten spots, and similarly to Eesti 200, they're promising sick pay at a rate of 100 percent from day one for those caring for sick children.
Parempoolsed make no mention of family policy in their campaign platform, with the exception of the promise to scrap child benefits altogether and eliminate inequality in family benefits.
Editor: Aili Vahtla