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Poland woos voters with controversial child benefit scheme

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The nationalist Polish government, often criticised by the EU for its authoritarianism, has set up a generous child benefit programme in a bid to woo voters. But not everyone is happy.

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“All governments steal, don’t they? But, wow, this is the first one that is actually giving something back!” Marta, 36, lives in a tidy, newly refurbished council flat in Warsaw’s Praga district. It’s the poorest district in the city centre, and the one where the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) scored highest in the 2015 general election. That is a pattern repeated throughout Poland. Broadly speaking, poorer areas prefer PiS.

For Marta, the reason is simple: she feels like the party saved her life. Three years ago, it introduced a child benefits programme called “500+”: all parents get 500 Polish zloty (about 115 euros) per month per child, from the second child on. Low-income families get it from the first child. Marta has two sons, so she receives a thousand zloty a month – about a third of her total income, she says.

“If it had not been for that ‘500+’ programme, I don’t know what would have happened to me and the kids, it would have been some kind of tragic story, I dunno, maybe even ending with a jump off the bridge.” The handouts were what Marta needed to get her life back on track, she says, after a redundancy and an abusive relationship left her homeless.

Marta, 36, and her two children. She feels the “500+” programme "saved her life".
Marta, 36, and her two children. She feels the “500+” programme "saved her life". Facebook

Marta was given accommodation in a shelter for victims of violence that existed before Law and Justice took office, and was treated for back problems under a state-funded healthcare system. Nevertheless, it’s only the direct cash payments that have really made her feel the government cares.

'Conservative populism' with generous social benefits

Jarosław Kaczynski, the party’s leader, clearly understands this. Facing a series of tough political battles this year that start with the European Parliament elections, he announced more of the same – quite a lot more. 500+ will soon be applicable from the first child, retirees will get an extra “13th month” pension payment this year, and people under 26 will be exempt from income tax. Economists put the total cost of the measures at around €9bn.

PiS says Poland can afford this. In a sense, it can. The economy grew by 5% in 2018, as the budget deficit hit a record low of 0.5 percent. Unemployment stands at 3.7% – down from 7% when PiS took office – and private sector wages have been rising at a rate of 7% or more a year. Warsaw’s reputation in Europe has taken a tumble due to the government’s clash with the Commission over rule-of-law issues, but in terms of the economy Poland is still the continent’s bright star. Last year it became the only country from the former Soviet bloc to officially join the rich world – receiving “developed country” status from the FTSE. All these factors also contribute to PiS’s popularity. But according to Tomasz Kasprowicz, an economist with the Res Publica thinktank, the boom “doesn’t have anything to do with the government”.

“Poland is a highly pro-cyclic country,” he explains: “If things are good in the world, then they are very good in Poland.” In other words, PiS has been lucky in riding the wave of the European boom on solid economic foundations posed by the previous, liberal government.

Redistributing the fruits of Polish growth

Critics of the government say it is being reckless by failing to capitalise on the good times and invest in services. Jan Grabiec of the opposition Civic Platform party points out that waiting times to see specialist doctors have grown exponentially during the boom when “it should be exactly the opposite”. Poland faces a huge challenge ahead to provide pensions for its ageing population, yet PiS lowered the retirement age. Marek Belka, a former prime minister and central bank governor, calls the party’s policies “a festival of irresponsibility”.

For Kasprowicz, the measures Kaczynski has announced ahead of this election cycle are tantamount to giving up on the whole idea of having a strong state that provides quality healthcare, education and infrastructure. “They don’t know how to do it, so instead they are just handing the money to the people,” he says.

The spending plans could bring Poland close to the EU’s budget deficit limit of 3% of GDP in 2020. Some economists fear it could even breach the limit, making quite a leap from under 0,5% in 2018. It is something the government is keen to avoid but it's causing major strain. There is no money left in the budget for increases to public sector pay. Following on from medical staff in 2017-18, the country’s teachers have gone on strike for the first time in 25 years.

'It's better to give someone a fishing rod than a fish'

At Primary School #258 in Praga district, striking teachers gathered in the foyer say the situation is critical. “The average age of a teacher in Poland is around 50,” says Jerzy, who teaches maths. “Young people don’t want to join this profession because the pay is so low.”

Teachers went on strike in April for the first time in 25 years.
Teachers went on strike in April for the first time in 25 years. Gulliver Cragg / FMM

Entry-level salaries for teachers are currently lower than for supermarket cashiers. The teaching unions are demanding a 30% hike; the government says it cannot afford it. Not an easy argument to make when you’ve just announced a €9bn spending plan. Anna, another teacher at the school, says PiS’s priorities are wrong: “It’s better to give someone a fishing rod than a fish, so that people would receive the ability to earn money, rather than just giving them money directly.”

“Handouts are never really a good strategy,” says Jerzy, pointing out that young mothers who rely on the 500+ benefits rather than developing careers of their own could end up at 40 with no qualifications. Many claim that the 500+ programme encourages alcoholism and lethargy – a request for comments on it on a Facebook group elicited an explosion of such accusations and jokes, and links to sites with stories of the worst-behaving parents, rushing to beauty salons on the day the payments drop. Marta says she finds some of these anecdotes funny, but wishes people would recognise that most parents spend the money sensibly, or put it aside for their children.

The teachers at school #258 say that while some parents have been complaining, most are broadly supportive of the strike. A visit to the nearby zoo, which is offering free entry to children and their guardians during the strike, confirmed that impression. “It’s a huge problem for us,” said Ela, a gaggle of children in tow. “We’ve arranged with other parents in the area to take it in turns to look after each others’ kids on weekdays.” But she added she felt the strike was entirely justified, and had only solidified her opposition to the government. Mariusz, a PiS supporter and father of three, was more equivocal. “I’m having to take a holiday today rather than in the summer when we could go away somewhere”, he said ruefully, adding that teachers should settle for less than they were demanding. Like so many Polish people, he repeated the view that this was “the first government that has really done something for kids”. His “500+” payments enabled his daughter to take additional English lessons, for example. Going into the election cycle, the government is hoping that such views will prevail.

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