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Poland's "Family Values" Obsession Squashes The Rights Of The Individual

Poland's political parties across the spectrum prioritize the family in every area of life, which has a detrimental effect on everything from social services to women. But the state should support a dignified life for every citizen, not just those who are in long-term unions.

Photo of an empty stroller in the middle of a crowded square in Warsaw, Poland

In Warsaw, Poland

Piotr Szumlewicz

-OpEd-

WARSAW — Social policy in Poland means family. Both left and right, major parties boast that they support the idea of family, act in the favor of families, and make sure that families are safe.

Everyone seems to have forgotten that, according to Article 32 of the Polish Constitution, "everyone is equal before the law" and "everyone has the right to equal treatment by public authorities."

What's more, "no one shall be discriminated against in political, social or economic life for any reason." In other words, the state should take care of all citizens, regardless of whether they live alone or are part of large families, have childless marriages or informal unions.

Unfortunately, for many years, Polish state policy has been moving in a completely different direction. The subject of government social policy is not the individual, but the traditional family. Even sadder: this policy is also supported by the entire parliamentary opposition. This actually means supporting Christian Democrat social policies that discriminate against women, single people, or those living in informal relationships.


In the Christian Democratic model, most benefits are not directed towards the individual, but towards the traditional family, in which men occupy a privileged position. An important element of this model is also the principle of subsidiarity, which is that the state helps the individual only when the family's capabilities are exhausted.

Excluded from the labor market

Hence the low quality of public services, including the lack of extensive institutional day and senior care, resulting in the burdening of care services on families – that is to say, women. Which explains women's short work experience and lower retirement age compared to men.

Combining work and child rearing is difficult in this model for women, which results in them staying at home and being permanently excluded from the labor market. The state spends money on social matters, but mainly on strengthening the traditional family model. Money flows to families, while it is rare for single people or those living in informal relationships, and even rarer for public services that relieve women of some of their domestic responsibilities.

There are low-quality public services, including a lack of institutional senior care or quality school meals.

The policies of Poland's ruling Law and Justice party fit this model perfectly. There are low-quality public services, including a lack of institutional senior care or quality school meals. There is progressive degradation of education and healthcare because their funding is among the lowest in the European Union. Older people are taken care of by families, which usually means women.

In this context, it is hardly surprising that Poland is the last country in the European Union that not only has a different retirement age according to gender, but does not even intend to equalize it. Women enter the labor market late and are expected to drop out early in order to perform caregiving functions at home. As a result, women have pensions more than $220 lower than men and could become poor senior citizens. Furthermore, there are about 15% more economically active men than women on the labor market.

The entire model is overseen by the Catholic Church, which seeks to strengthen the traditional family model and favors solutions that encourage women to stay at home.

Photo of a Warsaw statue of a pregnant woman, a man and a child entitled "The Polish Family"

A monument celebrating the "Polish Family" in Warsaw

Mariochom/Wikimedia Commons

Rewarding marriage with money

Simultaneously, the state spends heavily on families with children. Families receive funds to provide services, which in many countries are provided by the state. So the benefits are not directed to the poor or to women, but to families in general.

In recent years, there have also been housing programs favoring married couples. Also, the tax system gives lower taxes to married couples, and the law on gifts and inheritances strongly favors married couples over those living in informal unions. In this vein, the parliamentary Left recently called for an increase in the “widow's pension”, payments to people who have lost their spouses.

The benefit of all these policies will only be applied to married couples and bypasses those living in informal unions or, even more so, single people. What's more, the state is to pay extra money to couples who have been married for a long time. This is an even more selective solution, as it would cover the few couples who have lived together in a formalized relationship for many years.

The connection between all these initiatives is the privilege accorded to traditional families and the introduction of mechanisms to make it economically viable to remain married. Though it is worth noting that the number of married people has been declining for many years, and today, about half of Polish adults are unmarried.

How to change

How could this situation be improved?

First, the recipients of benefits would be individuals, not families. The problems directly affecting children would be prioritized: free daycare and kindergarten care would be expanded and the free school meals program at all stages of education would be developed. High-quality medical, dental and psychological care would be provided in all schools. Universal educational support in public schools would be radically expanded, so that parents would not have to pay hundreds of dollars a month for tutoring.

The goal is not to marginalize or weaken the family.

With these changes, funds would be spent directly on children, while allowing parents to combine household and work responsibilities, thus balancing the situation between men and women on the labor market. Such a policy would reduce cash benefits for families, as the state would bear a large part of the cost of raising children.

Even greater progress would be made on senior citizen policy. Instead of one-off electoral gifts, the state would develop a network of high-quality, free or inexpensive care facilities for seniors. The quality of healthcare, including preventive care, would be improved, while social activation programs for seniors would be introduced. This would include both professional work and activities in non-governmental organizations supported by the state.

The good life for every citizen

The goal is not to marginalize or weaken the family. On the contrary, the idea is to make living together a matter of free choice, not economic coercion. At the same time, the goal is to ensure that single people or those living in informal relationships are not discriminated against in any way. In this sense, the idea is that the state should support a dignified life for every citizen, not just those who live in long-term marriages.

Even openly progressive circles are afraid.

This way, the retirement age could be gradually raised (and equal for both genders, of course), and at the same time, seniors, regardless of their family situation, would participate in social life. The recipients of services for seniors would not only be widowers or married couples, but any elderly person.

It is bizarre that in Poland, even openly progressive circles are afraid to support policies that focus on the individual rather than the conservative family.

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Ivan Abreu / ZUMA
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