Poverty in Poland
Poverty in Poland has been relatively stable in the past decades, affecting (depending on measure) about 6.5% of the society. There have been noticeable increases in poverty around the turns of the decades, offset by decreases in poverty in the years following those periods.
History and trends
During the Second Polish Republic, deep poverty characterized the country's farmers, who made up 70% of the population, a feature that worsened with the Great Depression. Per capita GNP in 1929 was lower than that of the neighboring Baltic states, although, in 1937, higher than in Portugal or Greece. While farm productivity was high in western Poland, it was much lower in southern and eastern areas, due to high population levels and relatively small farm size. In the country's central, southern and eastern regions, 6.5 million people were unable to satisfy their basic food needs by 1934-1935. In 1930-1931, farm laborers earned 54% of their low wages of two years earlier, with one noting his family's diet consisted of unseasoned potatoes, that the unaffordable price of soap meant they were covered in lice, and that a slice of bread was only for special occasions. An observer described the south as "a nightmare of degradation and poverty". By late 1934, rural Poles had an estimated purchasing capacity at 43% of the 1928 level. Urban consumers were aided by falling food prices, but jobs became scarcer, with industrial production in 1932 at 58% of the pre-depression level, and unemployment above 40% in 1932-1934.
Poverty was acute among Polish Jews, who had among the highest rates of natural increase in Europe and were often unable to feed their children. After the Peace treaty of Riga, the already numerous Jewish minority of the Second Polish Republic was joined by several hundred thousand refugees escaping pogroms in the East. More than 75 per cent of them lived in the urban areas, with higher than average number of women, children and the elderly. Poland was struggling with remnants of devastating economic exploitation by the partitioners and their ensuing trade embargos (see also: German–Polish customs war). New job opportunities were mostly nonexistent before Poland's industrialization of the mid-1930s – although Jewish per capita income among the working population was more than 40% higher in 1929 than that of Polish non-Jews. The impoverished families relied on local Jewish charity, which had reached universally unprecedented proportions in 1929, providing services such as religion, education, health and other services to the amount of 200 million złoty a year.
Under the communist regime state labor policy, income equalizing policies and subsidies to energy, food and housing helped to relieve poverty and made it less visible. Rural workers' incomes were consistently lower than their urban counterparts', and poverty affected families living in the countryside with many children; but it also touched town dwellers: unskilled workers, pensioners, single and disabled people, single-parent families, families tied to alcoholism and crime, and young intelligentsia couples just starting independent lives. Family dysfunctions such as serious illness, elderly loneliness, abuse and alcoholism were correlated with poverty, as well as dramatic incidents in people's lives. Those living in poverty tended to have substandard housing, an inability to seek help from institutions, low education levels; they sometimes turned to crime and excessive drinking.
The most common site of poverty was among retirees and those receiving disability payments; one 1979 estimate indicates that 40-50% of pensioners and disabled families lived at or below the social minimum. Next came workers in the lowest income categories (agricultural and unskilled workers, as well as laborers). In 1974, 48% of workers were in low income groups, while in 1979, 10% of people in workers' families were below the social minimum level. A dissenting view is that poverty did not affect employed individuals and their families, as full employment guaranteed subsistence, if at a modest standard. Families with several children came next; in 1974, 60% of children lived in families below the social minimum.
Poverty was sometimes very deep, close to the subsistence minimum; this was the case for single, old and disabled pensioners; other times, it was partial, not affecting people's entire lives. For instance, a lack of adequate accommodation could impact a family's finances. The most common response to money troubles was to take on additional jobs, whether formal or informal, legal or illegal. One innovation was to wait in a queue on behalf of someone else, for a fee. Such practices meant that serious time shortages often came with poverty. As people started doing more at home to save or earn cash (producing food and clothing, repairing, painting apartments), time pressure damaged family life, so that lack of leisure time was a very widespread phenomenon among poor families.
Concurrently, the state tended to neglect the problem: a 1983 work claims that social assistance fulfilled 14% of poor people's needs. Institutions were not proactively interested in bettering people's lives, while the poor had little awareness of their rights. Official ideology saw poverty as a marginal phenomenon caused by unusual life events and pathology, rather than being a usual part of life. In the 1980s, as economic depression and the shortage economy took hold, poverty changed from afflicting the marginalized and the maladapted, to include those willing and able to work.
There are various estimates of poverty's extent in communist Poland. Using the social minimum level as a measure, the following figures are cited: 20% at the end of the 1960s; 28%, mostly employees, in 1975 (a secret official estimate); about 30% at the end of the 1980s; 14.2% in 1981, 27.2% in 1983, 25.3% in 1987 and 16.3% in 1989, according to the World Bank. One researcher found that the number of the poor increased from 3.3 million in 1978 to 8.6 million in 1987. By a stricter definition of poverty, figures for the end of the 1980s include 5-7%, 6% and 5-10%.
Polish sociologists began analyzing poverty almost as soon as sociology was established there. Early research institutions, such as the Institute of Social Economy in the Warsaw School of Economics, analyzed poverty, unemployment and the interwar economic migrations. Aside from census data and family budget inquiries, poverty was documented by independent investigations and autobiographical materials. The advent of communism interrupted this research tradition; poverty became a political issue, a social, political and ideological taboo. It was dismissed as a remnant of the previous regime or a byproduct of transitional difficulties; poverty and the poor were labeled with euphemisms such as "sphere of deficiency" or "low-income groups". Book or report titles prior to 1989 never used the term "poverty", while the neglect it received can also be seen in the lack of policies or related legislation. Scientific investigations were limited, with the most important research taking place in periods of relative openness: the time after the Polish October, the early 1970s, and 1980-1981. A number of important studies were published in spite of the prevailing ideology, but their publication was either seriously restricted or banned.
It has been estimated that Poland began its transformation from communist to capitalist economy with about 20% of its population in poverty. Poverty in Poland has risen briefly in the period of 1990-1992 and diminished since; it has however risen again in the late 1990s, following the slowdown in economic growth. In the years 1994-2001, subjective poverty line remained relatively stable at about 33%; and relative poverty line (poverty threshold) rose from 13.5% to 17%. Absolute poverty - as defined by the World Bank, the percentage of population living on less than $4.30 per day - in the period 1997-1999 affected 8.4% of Polish population. Estimates by other sources vary, however. According to Brzeziński (2011), in the years 1998-2003 absolute poverty in Poland has risen by about 8%, reaching (according to the Central Statistical Office (GUS) estimate) 18.1% in 2005, and dropping to 10.6% in 2008; an alternate measure suggests that in the period 2005-2008 absolute poverty fell from 12.3% to 5.6%. Brzeziński (2011) notes that any rise in poverty in the period 1998-2005 was outdone by the drop in poverty in the years 2005-2008.
According to Polish Central Statistical Office (GUS) 2011 report, the poverty line in Poland has been decreasing in the last few years, reaching about 6.5% in 2011. The report notes, however, that this is mostly due to the fact that the nominal value of poverty line in Poland has not changed since 2006, thus ignoring inflation. If the poverty line was indexed to inflation, the report estimated that 11.4% of Polish households would be below it. The poverty threshold was estimated at 16.7%. Percent of population receiving less than the living wage was estimated at 6.7%. Poverty has decreased compared to a 2005 report, which reported both poverty line and poverty threshold at 18.1%, and the percentage of population receiving less than the living wage at 12.3%. In 2003, about 23% of households believed they lived below the poverty line (declaring that they saw their income as insufficient for basic needs).
Overall, the levels of poverty in Poland have been reported as stable or on the decrease in the past years, but it is still a significant concern. The reduction in poverty slowed down or was partially reversed again in early 2010s, although as of early 2013 the datasets are still mostly preliminary and usually cover the period only up to 2011.
Poverty in Poland has been described as "shallow", referring to the fact that few poor live significantly below the poverty line (as defined by World Bank); the at risk of poverty gap in Poland is estimated at about 21%.
In terms of geography, poverty was more likely to affect households in small towns and rural areas, as well as households in the east and north, with the highest poverty reported in Warmia-Mazury Voivodeship, Podlaskie Voivodeship, Lubelskie Voivodeship and Świętokrzyskie Voivodeship (see also: Poland A and B).
Poverty was most prevalent for households suffering from unemployment, disability, and with multiple children. The young are more likely to be affected by the poverty than the old, who are relatively well off due to generous pension system. As such, poverty in Poland is relatively similar, in terms of structure, to that found in most other European countries. Beblo et al. (2002) note that poverty in Poland is primarily caused by unemployment, insufficient aid to families with multiple children or from marginalized groups, and poor earnings in agricultural sector. Brzeziński (2011) notes that the rise in poverty in late 1990s and early 2000s can be attributed to stagnant wages and pensions, and growing unemployment, and its subsequent decline, to economic growth and welfare policies.
Poverty in Poland - international ranking
|Population living under 1.25 and
2 dollar (PPP) a day (%)
(International poverty line)
|Population living below national poverty line (%)|
Since fall of communism in Poland in 1990, income inequality has substantially increased. This has been caused by rising prosperity and to a lesser extent, impoverishment. Rutkowski (1998) notes that "those who have gained from income changes are outnumbered by those who have lost. However, while the gains have been significant, the losses have been relatively small." Those who have gained the most were well-educated, highly skilled white-collar workers and entrepreneurs. Overall, families are more dependent on state assistance than before the transition, with family allowance and unemployment benefits being most important in reducing inequality.
There is a widespread perception of widening wealth gap in Poland, although Rutkowski (1998) argues that it has more to do with social structure changes than actual gap in income distribution.
Income inequality in Poland - international ranking
R/P 10%: The ratio of the average income of the richest 10% to the poorest 10%
R/P 20%: The ratio of average income of the richest 20% to the poorest 20%
Gini: Gini index, a quantified representation of a nation's Lorenz curve
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