This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and the Fuller Project for International Reporting.
SOBOLEW, Poland—Andrzej and Izabela Gromuł have a lot going on, with three boys ranging from 5 to 12, and a daughter on the way. On the warm Saturday afternoon that we spoke, the grassy backyard of their home in this small town was filled with toys, bicycles, and laundry drying in the sun; stairs off the foyer led to an unfinished attic, soon to be a playroom for the children.
Yet money is not tight. In recent years, the family has gone on a skiing vacation, and the couple just took their first trip to Italy for a romantic vacation. Andrzej works in construction and Izabela sells construction materials, but their newfound taste for travel, they said, came courtesy of Poland’s ruling party, Law and Justice.
The party, known as PiS, its Polish acronym, came to power in 2015 after campaigning on its flagship Family 500+ program, a monthly allowance of 500 złoty (about $125) per child for each kid after the first, or for single children in low-income families. Since the program went into effect, the Gromułs have been collecting 1,000 złoty a month, or nearly half of Poland’s minimum wage. That income will soon double once their daughter is born and their first son is included—the program has now expanded to cover all children. The kids are getting a taste for the high life, they joke, and are clamoring to visit Italy too.
“Now we don’t have to think twice about every expenditure,” Andrzej told me. “There are some crazy people in PiS … but still, these last couple of years show they actually did something, and our situation is better.”
The populist parties of Eastern Europe are widely viewed from afar as a nasty gang of bigoted nationalists with a thinly veiled penchant for authoritarianism. But critics overlook a key part of their appeal: They have channeled serious money to voters in the name of shoring up the “family values” they say are under siege from secular Europe. These parties, such as PiS and Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, in Hungary, have found electoral success by combining a right-wing vision of society with state largesse. The Family 500+ program in particular, with its catchy title, neat round number, and wide reach, has become a model for other countries in the region, where declining birth rates and emigration of native-born citizens to more prosperous European countries have sparked demographic panic.
Here in Poland, the program has proved intoxicating for large swaths of the population, one that helped garner PiS a decisive parliamentary victory in elections yesterday, winning over not just conservative Catholics, but an array of more unlikely fans, including leftists who felt that PiS, by favoring a model typically eschewed by right-wing parties, offered a compelling critique of a rigged system that left workers vulnerable to the predations of international and local elites.
“They were listening to people like me; they were reading Thomas Piketty,” says Rafał Woś, a columnist for the socialist Catholic weekly Tygodnik Powszechny, referring to the French economist whose agenda-setting book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, argues that wealth could continue to concentrate in the hands of the rich. The book was endorsed by the PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczyński in 2015.
The program’s design—free money, no strings attached—is similar to a universal basic income, and marks a sharp departure from the paternalistic attitude of previous governments, which viewed poor families as “incapable of being in charge of their own money,” says Tomasz Inglot, a political scientist at Minnesota State University who studies welfare states in Central and Eastern Europe.
The universality of the program has even won it grudging plaudits from some feminists, most of whom hold otherwise dim views of the government, which tried to outlaw abortion in 2016 and routinely depicts feminism as a form of “gender ideology” that is poisoning Poland’s traditional values. Agnieszka Graff, a writer, feminist, and professor at the University of Warsaw, notes that Family 500+ recognizes the economic value of caregiving, an acknowledgment that, ironically, could give women more power within their households, even as it may discourage them from joining the formal labor market. At the same time, the program reinforces traditional values that still resonate widely among the country’s conservative voters.
“Parenthood is an area where conservatives really respond to a lot of people’s gut feelings,” Graff says. “I think the financial crisis taught the nationalist right something that the liberal center took much longer to learn, which is that people no longer believe in the free-market economy as the solution to all issues.”
Family 500+ was initially framed as a way to boost Poland’s perilously low fertility rate, just 1.29 births per woman in 2019. When it proved more effective at reducing poverty and spurring consumer spending, the government shifted to touting its economic benefits, and this year extended it to include firstborn children. In a move seen as electioneering, the first three months’ of expanded benefits, which went into effect in July, arrived in a lump sum, just ahead of these elections.
Family allowances have mostly been shown not to boost fertility rates over the long term, but that has not stopped other countries from taking note. Lithuania, for example, which has lost 17.5 percent of its population since 2000, started distributing “child money” in 2018, with extra funds for families with three or more kids. Hungary, whose birth rate fell to 1.23 births per woman in 2011, has since 2015 implemented progressively more generous family benefits such as tax breaks, interest-free housing loans for young couples, and government support for buying seven-seat cars. In 2018, the populist Serbian Progressive Party adopted a “Strategy for the Encouragement of Childbirth,” which also aims to reverse population decline through cash benefits for having babies.
This mimicry is no accident. Joanna Krupska, president of the Polish Large Families Association, has for decades been campaigning for more government support for families. A mother of seven whose late husband, Janusz Krupski, died in the Smolensk plane crash that killed former President Lech Kaczyński, Krupska now facilitates intergovernmental exchanges across the region. She has recently been to Hungary twice, including for a conference for Visegrád countries’ family ministries. Poland and Hungary, she told me, have a lot to learn from each other.
“They [Hungarian officials] are interested in our financial aid,” she said. “They came here to learn, and we are interested in their mechanisms,” she continued, citing Hungary’s tax incentives and housing loans.
Populist movements also found a ready audience for their family-friendly message in existing conservative parents’ associations and church groups, whose activities include organizing against sex education in schools, but also outreach to poor families to ensure they have diapers and food. Family “is a really important issue through which they can reach a much bigger population than through nationalist and these kind of chauvinist messages,” says Elżbieta Korolczuk, a Polish sociologist who has written extensively on gender and is researching the European far right.
This spring, Korolczuk attended the annual gathering of the World Conference of Families in Verona, Italy. The WCF, designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, brings together politicians and NGOs to network and strategize about promoting what they call the “natural family,” as opposed to LGBTQ couples and families. This year, the congress’s theme was “The Winds of Change: Europe and the Global Pro-Family Movement.” Although Poland did not send an official high-level delegation this year, “almost every speaker was talking about 500 złoty,” Korolczuk says.
For progressives and other PiS opponents, these programs’ popularity leave them with little room to maneuver, except to call for more investment in public institutions such as child care, schools, and hospitals. Barbara Nowacka, a politician who ran the campaign on social policy for a left-wing coalition in 2015, told me its message, which included promises to invest in kindergartens and encourage employers to offer women better job protection and flexible work, was admittedly “boring” in comparison. She would prefer to see the program’s budget—estimated by the labor ministry at 31 billion złoty in 2019 and 41 billion złoty in 2020—directed toward services such as warm meals in schools and school-based medical services, such as nurses and dentists. “But we know that this 500+ satisfies people,” she said. “Everyone believes that it is better to have money than trust the state.”
Or, as Kaczyński put it to an audience of PiS supporters at a party convention in February, “A person whose pockets are empty isn’t free.”
Poland’s family allowance is not unique in Europe, but it represents a qualitative shift from the country’s welfare regime after the collapse of Communism, when the country rapidly transitioned to a market economy, dismantling public services that helped families, such as crèches and inexpensive cafeterias. Since the early 1990s, Eastern and Central European countries have lagged behind Western European countries in spending on children and families as a share of GDP, but the Family 500+ program puts Poland on par with Germany and Norway.
The program has been criticized for being fiscally irresponsible, with large amounts of money going to middle-class and high-income families who don’t need it. It is affordable at the moment, but a downturn could jeopardize public finances unless the government, for example, raises taxes, which so far it has been reluctant to do. And by mid-2017, female labor-force participation had already fallen two to three percentage points since the program’s launch, according to an analysis by three economists, with especially steep drops for women with three or more children.
And while the government says the program is meant to support families, its definition of a family is clear—a heterosexual couple, married, with multiple children. “It’s for a very concrete group of people,” says Sylwia Chutnik, a novelist and prominent feminist who has lobbied for greater government assistance for mothers.
Advocates for the LGBTQ community, women’s rights, and children’s rights say this emphasis puts their constituents at a disadvantage, or even at risk. In recent months, high-ranking Polish officials and their allies in the Catholic Church have ratcheted up their rhetoric against sexual minorities, calling for a ban on pride parades and equating same-sex adoption with pedophilia, a tactic observers say was an effort to mobilize voters against a new scapegoat, now that immigrants are no longer streaming into Europe. The country’s largest children’s rights NGO has seen its funding scaled back, and same-sex couples who have children overseas face challenges in getting their kids recognized as Polish citizens when they return home. There are other, noneconomic, costs: One single mother in Warsaw who had twins via IVF and donated sperm had originally given me permission to use her real name when we spoke in May, but later emailed me to ask me not to, because she feared what would happen to her kids if they were outed as IVF children. Stasia, another single mother living in Zgorzelec, a town on the Polish-German border, said her 19-year-old son had been hurt by PiS officials disparaging single mothers, calling their families dysfunctional or incomplete.
Anna Krawczak, a researcher at the University of Warsaw and an activist on behalf of fertility patients, has been fostering two young children with her husband for nearly three years, alongside the couple’s two biological children. She is critical of the government’s prioritization of family reintegration over what she sees as the children’s best interest. “There’s a huge emphasis on biological families,” she told me. Still, though she said she would never consider voting for PiS, she admitted that Family 500+ went a long way—she uses the benefits to pay for therapy for their foster children.