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The question remains whether splurging on family policies is sustainable long-term in Poland.
Polish_Dolls 560 747 Why does Poland's birth-rate remain stubbornly low?
Polish dolls Cadaverexquisito (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Why is the Polish birth-rate stubbornly low, and what could Poland do to increase it? Read about new research on the country with one of the lowest fertility rates in Europe.

In 2017, the Polish government launched an advertisement to encourage its citizens to ‘multiply like rabbits’. This followed a controversial ‘Family 500 +’ programme introduced in 2016, which offered families with more than one child generous and universal benefits, putting considerable strain on the government budget.

These latest interventions by the Polish government, who have extended paid parental leave, expanded childcare services, and increased financial transfers to families with children, have had relatively little impact. Despite their efforts, the Polish birth-rate remains stubbornly low, with the country having the second lowest fertility in Europe.

But not all Polish families are small. Polish expatriates living in the UK, a common destination for migrants, have a birth-rate of 2.1 babies per women of child bearing age, significantly higher than the average of 1.3 babies for those women who stay in Poland.

This contrast piqued the interest of Dr Joanna Marczak and her research partners, Professor Wendy Sigle, and Professor Ernestina Coast, who became interested in the reasons behind Polish people’s tendency to have larger families when they moved abroad.

They interviewed two groups of Polish citizens, one based in Krakow, Poland, and the other based in London, U.K., to understand their family planning choices. The respondents in both settings compared the living standards and government support on offer in their native Poland with other European countries.

Parents based in London expressed satisfaction with their situation in comparison with lives in their home country. One interviewee said: “In Poland it is hard all the time. In the U.K., the economy, shops, prices, wages and the government’s help… it is easier...”

This contrasted with the more pessimistic outlook of many Polish parents based in Krakow. Interviewees commented: “Life is simply easier there, (in the U.K.)”, and, “everywhere in the West (of Europe) people earn three times as much (as in Poland).”

Dr Marczak found that the international comparisons made by the interviewees shed light on the difference in birth-rates. She says: “People living in poorer European nations often assess their living standards as inadequate compared to richer European countries.”

“When developing policies to tackle very low-birth rates, policymakers should consider how such comparisons might affect how people evaluate any national policies,” Dr Marczak adds.

Parents in Poland tended to make comparisons with other, richer European countries ahead of any considerations on how their situation had improved relative to their own country’s recent history. They would then base their decisions whether to have more children on “relative” living standard and income in comparison to other people living in Europe.

This means that people in less affluent European countries may feel worse off, even though their material circumstances are improving. By benchmarking against wealthier Western European countries the parents may think that they are unable to afford having a larger family, because they perceive their situation unfavourably compared to families abroad. 

This insight may help explain why the Polish birth-rate remains low despite the spate of the policies and financial assistance designed to support parents. Policymakers find themselves in competition with other, often more affluent, European countries, reducing the impact of policies that aim to create a more favourable living standard for their citizens.

While Poland has experienced unprecedented economic growth in the last decade, the country’s GDP still lags behind many Western and Northern European countries. The relative wealth of neighbouring countries has driven high levels of outward migration since Poland’s accession to the EU in 2004, when Polish citizens gained the right to live and work in other European countries.

Dr Marczak says: “The policies in Poland to incentivise people to have more children have budgetary and social costs, for example, a declining female workforce participation associated with increasing cash transfers to families, cuts in other public spending to cover some of the costs of family programmes. These measures have not led to a noticeable rise in fertility so far.

“The question remains whether splurging on family policies is sustainable long-term in Poland and whether there are other, perhaps more effective, ways to deal with low birth rates and population ageing.”

Behind the article

When the grass is greener: fertility decisions in a cross-national context by Joanna Marczak, Wendy Sigle and Ernestina Coast (2018) was published by Population Studies in May 2018.