Exclusive: Can Poland’s low birthrate be fixed? Polish secretary of state discusses with Remix News the challenges and potential solutions to the country’s demographic crisis

Barbara Socha, the Polish secretary of state in charge of demographic policy in the Ministry of Family and Social Policy, spoke with Remix News.
By Olivier Bault
29 Min Read

A flagship program of Poland’s United Right government led by Law and Justice (PiS) was to be the 500+ benefit, a monthly allowance for each child. This program has had a very positive effect in terms of fighting poverty, which in Poland very often affected families with many children. On the other hand, when it comes to the pro-natalist impact, which was also heralded as a major goal, after some initial success, this effect is somehow no longer visible and the fertility rate in Poland remains below 1.4 children per woman. Could this be simply because 500+ has lost value, there is high inflation, and the 500 zloty allowance per child has never been revalued?

I think this is not a matter of the allowance having lost some of its value, nor is it about the fact that the effect of this program was temporary. All experts agree that for pro-natalist, pro-family policies to be effective, they must be long-term, stable, consistent and comprehensive.

In Poland, a Demographic Strategy has been established. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki appointed a Government Plenipotentiary for Demographic Policy at the beginning of his term in order to prepare such a strategy so that there would be a chance to conduct a coherent and comprehensive demographic policy.

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After analyzing all available Polish and international scientific research, we identified areas that affect fertility. One of these areas is financial security for families. That’s what we called it in the strategy, and the 500+ program is just part of this area called “financial security.” Other elements affecting financial security are, of course, wages, pension issues, tax policy and benefits.

We also have a second very important area: housing policy. The third area that is very important is the durability of families, and here we can argue about how much of this is within the scope of state action and how much is not.

There is also a fourth area, which is culture. Culture, according to some experts, is the key factor with the greatest impact on demographics.

Another very important area is childcare, and in particular childcare for children under three, because this is the most difficult stage for parents when it comes to reconciling responsibilities; it is also associated with the income gap, that is, the loss of previous income for some mothers who would like to take care of their children personally, and this in a situation when there are more people to support in the family.

The labor market is also hugely important, i.e., labor market regulations, the position of women in the labor market, the ability to return to work after maternity leave, and so on.

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There is also the role of education, both education in the broadest sense and education in the logistical sense, such as the fact that there are still schools in Poland that work in three shifts, which does not make it easy for parents to combine roles, and I won’t even mention the quality of such education.

There is the infrastructure for childcare and the quality of healthcare.

So, there are many areas that have an impact on natality.

Thus, if we look at family policy holistically, the 500+ program as one tool in one area had no chance to work on the whole system. If it were that simple, we wouldn’t have demographic problems in Europe. The success of this program from the pro-natalist side, on the other hand, is that we can still see its very clear positive effect on the number of families that decide to have a third or fourth child, and we can see that the increase in the number of such families in Poland since the introduction of 500+ is a permanent phenomenon.

Well, okay, but for example, in terms of infrastructure, we know that since the United Right coalition has been in power, i.e., since 2015, the number of nurseries has increased. Besides, the 500+ child allowance is not the only child benefit. Others have been introduced in recent years. The average income of Poles has also gone up. Maybe not in the last year, but over the last few years incomes have increased quite significantly, and we have a very low level of unemployment in Poland. And yet, never since World War II have so few children been born in Poland as now. How can we explain this in the context of what you have just said?

When we analyze births, we notice several phenomena. First, we have something that is happening all over the world, what demographers call the second demographic transition. The first demographic transition was that, thanks to the development of civilization, the world’s mortality rate fell dramatically and life expectancy increased.

The second demographic transition is due to the fact that women’s entry into the workforce, coupled with knowledge about regulation or control of conception and the spread of a more individualistic culture, has led to women having far fewer children than they used to.

The second demographic transition in Western Europe began a little earlier than in our country. In Poland, the beginning of this demographic transition was in the 1980s and 1990s, and it was then that the fertility rate fell dramatically and women began to give birth to fewer children, although in the 1980s the numbers were still above the generation replacement level.

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We fell below this level in the crucial year of 1990. To understand what is happening now in terms of the number of children being born, one must also look at the whole period since World War II.

After World War II, we had a baby boom. In the 1950s, nearly 800,000 babies were born annually, even though Poland’s population had been devastated by the war and there were fewer potential mothers. Later, a demographic low entered childbearing age: In the 1960s, there were already many fewer births, and we recorded a new demographic low. But then, as the baby boomers entered their childbearing years, we had an echo of the post-war baby boom in the 1970s and 1980s.

So in Poland, people speak of the “martial law boom,” although it had absolutely nothing to do with the martial law of the early 1980s, contrary to what we hear in some media. At that time, some 750,000 children were born every year.

And again, in a natural way, when the generation from the last demographic low entered their childbearing age, we had a new demographic low. I am, of course, exaggerating the phenomenon a bit here, but my point is to show these movements. The peak year in terms of births was 1983.

Women who were born then entered their childbearing age between 2008 and 2014. We should naturally have had an echo of this high. Since we were already after the second demographic transition, meaning lower fertility rates, we could not expect 750,000 births, but 600,000 would have been a reasonable expectation. However, the yearly number of births was only at around 350,000 babies in those years.

That is when we had a true demographic collapse. That generation did not give birth to children or did not give birth in Poland. In 2004, Poland joined the European Union, and a large part of the baby boomers simply left, for example for the UK.

And why are so few children being born still today? Partly because we still do not have a coherent and comprehensive demographic policy, but mainly because we now have very few women of childbearing age. Today, the generation at the age to bear children comes from the demographic low of the 1990s.

So, we now have the double effect of the reduced number of women of childbearing age and lower fertility rates. Therefore, there is no physical possibility that more children will be born in Poland over the next 10 to 15 years, simply because the sharp decline in births in the past is causing a decline in births today. We are now in a demographic low, and this is a natural situation.

What we can do – and this is what the Demographic Strategy to 2040 says –  is to influence fertility, not births, over the next 20 years. The number of births is the fertility rate multiplied by the number of women. We are unable to influence the number of women. We can, however, influence fertility, but that takes time.

You also mentioned the cultural factor. I’m puzzled by the fact that although among my friends, very religious Catholic families tend to have many children more often than others, at the macro level across Europe, traditionally Catholic countries such as Poland, Italy and Spain have the lowest fertility rates. By contrast, in the least religious countries like the Czech Republic, France or even Russia, where few people go to church and abortion rates are very high, the fertility rate is 1.7-1.8, compared to 1.4 in Catholic Poland and 1.2 in Italy. Is there a cultural problem with Catholicism?

No, only an excessively superficial understanding of culture would lead to such a hasty conclusion.

And indeed, in these countries, highly religious families have many more children than secular families; the average difference between fervent believers and non-believers in countries such as France, the Netherlands, Spain and the UK can even reach one child.

And since you mentioned the Czech Republic, I can tell you that we have surveyed them well. The Polish Pokolenia (Generations) Institute published a report on the demographic situation in the Czech Republic, and it turns out that although it is a secular country, there is a very strong attachment to family traditions there, and the family is something so natural for Czechs that they are not even aware of it because it is something so obvious to them.

Interestingly, Czechs see raising children as an obligation to the state, something that is totally absent among Poles, for example. For Poles, family is a very important value, but it is a private value, while we place work much higher as a duty to the state.

The fact that there has been a demographic collapse in Catholic countries, especially in southern Europe, while there is a high fertility rate in countries that are not necessarily conservative or religious like the Czech Republic, means that the causes and main barriers that cause fertility problems in Poland, for example, should be looked for elsewhere.

And we know what the key barriers are in Poland that continue to inhibit fertility and which we want to work on. The first barrier in Poland, which is very clear and not found on such a scale in most other European countries, is the education gap, i.e., the difference in education levels between men and women.

According to recent data, in the age bracket in which unions form, i.e., up to the age of 35, more than 50 percent of women have a college degree, while the figure for men is only 30 percent. These 20 percentage points are the education gap.

We know from scientific research and observation that women pair up to form relationships with men of similar or a bit higher economic and social standing, and education is a very important part of that social standing, especially at the start of adult life.

It can also be seen in Poland that young women tend to leave the small towns for big cities with academic centers, where they later stay and find jobs. So, to the huge education gap between women and men in Poland, we also have to add the geographic factor, as we have an overrepresentation of men in all the smaller towns since men do not need to study, for example, to earn a high income.

Far fewer men enter college, and some of those who do enter college leave it before the end of their studies. It is the opposite situation with women. Many of them choose to study, and that’s why we have an overrepresentation of educated women in large urban centers who have no candidates for life partners.

This is a very big Polish problem that cannot be solved easily or quickly. The education gap exists in all countries, but it is usually a much smaller gap, of around 6-7 percentage points.

The No. 2 problem in Poland is with stable work and stable income.

Stable work involves employment contracts of indefinite duration. In Poland, especially for women, but not only, people under the age of 30 are very often working on fixed-term contracts, and this causes them to postpone their life decisions. Once there is someone to form a relationship with, two things are needed for them to decide to have a child: a job and a place to live.

For that matter, we still have an unsolved housing problem in Poland, which today, with what is happening across the eastern border, with inflation and expensive mortgages, is only going to get worse.

Moreover, despite very low unemployment, and although the percentage of people employed on non-permanent contracts is falling, that percentage among young people, especially young women, is still high. We are talking about 30 percent to even more than 50 percent of women working on non-permanent contracts, depending on the age group.

When you don’t have a permanent contract, you can’t take out a mortgage either. These are two highly correlated factors. In Poland, the practice of entering into such work agreements is strong. Solving this requires social dialogue with employers, as such a situation is beneficial to them.

Another factor that sets us firmly apart from other countries is childcare for children under three.

When we look at countries that don’t have as much of a fertility problem, i.e., France, the Czech Republic or Romania, what they have in common is that the state in each case strongly supports families when the child is 0 to 3 years old. In Romania, there is a 2-year maternity leave with high pay (85 percent of a given salary).

The Czech Republic pays a parental benefit for a child up to the age of 3, and it amounts to 300,000 crowns. This is half of the total we give with our 500+ allowance, but in the Czech Republic, it is paid out in a period of 2-3 years, whereas in our country in a period of 18 years.

The impact on the household budget is the equivalent of the minimum wage for moms. It can be said that the Czechs pay a salary to mothers who are not working professionally but are taking care of young children. They have moved toward a traditional family childcare model, despite being seen as a culturally modern country.

Their attachment to the family is evident, and there, women are not at all expected to be in the labor market when they have a child aged 0 to 3. In the Czech Republic, the labor force participation of young women is low.

When we look at Hungary, it seems to me that all this has also been implemented. They have a great variety of benefits, they spend 5 percent of GDP on pro-family policies, and yet the impact on the fertility rate is limited.

They do spend large sums but in a different area. The Hungarians primarily support the area related to housing: loans to families and then loan waivers for families where a child is born. In Hungary, there are no transfers (benefits) like in the Czech Republic or like the 500+ allowance in Poland. Hungarians have not gone as far into universal transfers. They have set their sights on the housing and tax area.

Is there any exchange of experience at all with Hungary, which started its family-friendly policy earlier? And do such exchanges take place with other European countries? Is there any cooperation in this regard?

Yes. In particular, within the framework of the Visegrád Group, we organized, on our initiative, on the initiative of Marlena Maląg, the Polish minister of family and social policy, such meetings in a V4 format on pro-family policies and we did exchange experiences.

Before Katalin Novák became president of Hungary, she was the minister responsible for family affairs. At the beginning of her tenure as minister, we exchanged experiences very regularly for two years.

So we are quite familiar with Czech, Slovak and Hungarian policies.

The Czechs and Slovaks are also working on pension solutions, on changes to pension systems. The Slovaks have, one might say, made a revolution in their pension system by introducing a maintenance system. With this new system, today’s active citizens pay pension contributions on their income, and a portion of these contributions is transferred directly to their parents’ accounts. This naturally increases parents’ pensions.

So it is in their direct interest to have more children to have higher pensions…

The idea is, first, to have more children, second, to have one’s children remain in Slovakia when they become adults, and third, to have them work and earn high incomes. It is a combination of quantity and quality in raising children. The Slovaks have named this brilliantly, in my opinion, because they call it the zero pillar, i.e., the base pillar of their pension system.

It is now a part of their pension system that has been in place since January. It is revolutionary in that it involves both parents. It is not, after all, that men do not invest in the family and that it is only the domain of women. Therefore, I personally believe that this Slovak alimony system is the future.

The Czechs have introduced, also since January, a much simpler tool, something like our 500+ but in the form of a pension supplement for each child born to a woman. They now pay out 500 crowns a month for each child a retired woman has had, which is a small amount in terms of zlotys because it is about 100 zlotys (a little over €20), but at today’s level of women’s pensions in Poland of 2,500-3,000 zlotys, a woman who gave birth to three children would have an additional almost 300 zlotys.

Will a system like the one in Slovakia also be introduced in Poland?

It is too early to talk about it. I would dream of something like this. On the other hand, and this should be stressed, in Slovakia, the public debate on this issue had been going on for 17 to 18 years, as Minister Krajniak himself told me when I spoke to him about this issue in 2019-2020. The current Slovak government has spent its entire term preparing this system, and it has been up and running since last January only.

I hope it won’t be 17 years in Poland, but it will certainly take a long time because this is a revolution.

If so, can we say that there is reason for hope when it comes to the demographic future of Poland and the entire Central European region?

Of course, there is hope. Let’s look at Eurostat data, where it is precisely in our region that this family-friendly policy, even if slowly, is causing a reversal of the trend.

In Poland, unfortunately, we don’t see this yet, but the Czech Republic has very good results, and this shows that it can be done and that it is not like this is impossible where the culture, in the colloquial sense of the word, does not favor this.

The desire to have a family and offspring is natural for both men and women. We need to remove the barriers blocking fertility, and we in Poland are focusing on those three areas because it is within the state’s reach.

The education gap is also within the state’s reach, but it’s not so simple and obvious how to do it, much less how to do it quickly. The stability of work can also be influenced. There is a need for consistency and coherency, and a need to exchange experiences.

When I look at other European countries, interesting solutions can be found in almost every country. But these are such piecemeal solutions, like our 500+ allowance, which is a huge, revolutionary program, but it addresses, as I said at the beginning, one area and therefore cannot solve the whole problem for us.

What about the statements that have been heard for years in the European Parliament and the European Commission, that we will not avoid the need for mass immigration to fill the demographic gap?

We disagree with this, especially since such immigration will not solve the problem long-term.

If we attract huge numbers of people and let in such a large percentage of people from outside our cultural circle, we will generate a lot of social problems, and I think most people have now realized this. In addition, it does not solve the problems of the labor market. And this does not change the fact that we still have an aging population, with huge, growing problems as a result.

Western Europe does not have a pro-family policy in the sense of a pro-natalist policy. They are pursuing a policy to neutralize the negative effects of motherhood on the labor market: The career break is to be as short as possible, and childcare is to be provided so that women do not take care of the family and children, but return quickly to the labor market. This is not a family-friendly policy.

Admittedly, many European countries have higher fertility rates than Poland, which shows that good care systems do help to some extent, but not in the way we would like.

On the other hand, let’s look at countries like the Czech Republic or even Romania, which is also not a culturally very conservative country: These two Central European countries have the highest fertility increases, and they are today at the level of France. Except that there, it is done in quite the opposite way than in France.

Czechs pay women for maternity and don’t expect them to return to work for two or three years. Romanians have two years of highly paid maternity leave. The policies of these countries do not go in the direction of activating mothers of young children professionally. And there lies the most important difference. We need time, consistency, but also courage in implementing solutions. Our region shows that the situation is not a foregone conclusion. I still believe that we will succeed in reversing unfavorable demographic trends.

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