Location: Poland

Widowhood in Poland: Reforming the Financial Support System

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Drawing on a recent Policy Paper, we analyse the degree to which the current system of support in widowhood in Poland limits the extent of poverty among this large and growing group of the population. The analysis is set in the context of a proposed reform discussed lately in the Polish Parliament. We present the budgetary and distributional consequences of this proposal and offer an alternative scenario which limits the overall cost of the policy and directs additional resources to low-income households.

Introduction

Losing a partner usually comes with consequences, both for mental health and psychological well-being (Adena et al., 2023; Blanner Kristiansen et al., 2019; Lee et al., 2001; Steptoe et al., 2013), and for material welfare. Economic deprivation may be particularly pronounced in cases of high-income differentials between spouses and in situations when the primary earner – often the man – dies first. Many countries have instituted survivors’ pensions, whereby the surviving spouse continues to receive some of the income of her/his deceased partner alongside other incomes. The systems of support differ substantially between countries and they often combine social security benefits and welfare support for those with lowest incomes.

In this Policy Brief we summarise the results from a recent paper (Myck et al., 2024) and discuss the material situation of widows versus married couples in Poland. We show the degree to which the ‘survivors’ pension’, i.e. the current system of support in widowhood, limits the extent of poverty among widows and compare it to a proposed reform discussed lately in the Polish Parliament, the so called ‘widows’ pension’. In light of the examined consequences from this proposal we relate it to an alternative scenario, which – as we demonstrate – brings very similar benefits to low-income widows, but, at the same time, substantially reduces the cost of the policy.

Reforming the System of Support in Widowhood

Our analysis draws on a sample of married couples aged 65 and older from the Polish Household Budget Survey – a group representing a large part of the Polish population (almost 1,7 million couples). Each of these couples is assigned to an income decile, depending on the level of their disposable income. Incomes of 9.5 percent of the sample locate them in the bottom decile, i.e. the poorest 10 percent of the population, while 4.4 percent of these older couples have incomes high enough to place them in the top income group – the richest 10 percent of the population.

Next, in order to examine the effectiveness of the different systems of support, we conduct the following exercise: incomes of these households are re-calculated assuming the husbands have passed away. This simulates the incomes of the sampled women in hypothetical scenarios of widowhood. The incomes are calculated under four different systems of support as summarized in Table 1.

Table 1. Modelled support scenarios.

Using these re-calculated household incomes, we can identify the relative position in the income distribution in the widowhood scenario as well as the poverty risk among widows under different support systems.

The change in the relative position in the income distribution following widowhood under the four support systems is presented in Figure 1. The starting point (the left-hand side of each chart) are the income groups of households with married couples aged 65+, i.e. before the simulated widowhood. The transition to the income deciles on the right-hand side of each chart is the result of a change in equivalised (i.e. adjusted for household composition) disposable income in the widowhood simulation, under different support scenarios (I – IV).

Figure 1. Change in income decile among women aged 65+, following a hypothetical death of their husbands.

Source: Own calculations based on HBS 2021 using SIMPL model; graphs were created using: https://flourish.studio/

Figure 1a shows that, without any additional support, the financial situation of older women would significantly deteriorate in the event of the death of their spouses (Figure 1a). The share of women with incomes in the lowest two deciles would be as high as 54.7 percent (compared to 17.5 percent of married couples). The current survivor’s pension seems to protect a large proportion of women from experiencing large reductions in their income (Figure 1b), although the proportion of those who find themselves in the lowest two income decile groups more than doubles relative to married couples (to 38.3 percent). The widow’s pension (Figure 1c) offers much greater support and a very large share of new widows remain in the same decile or even move to a higher income group following the hypothetical death of their spouses. For example, with the widows’ pension, 8.0 percent of the widows would be in the 9th income decile group and 5.3 percent in the 10th group, while in comparison 7.0 and 4.4 percent of married couples found themselves in these groups, respectively. The proposed alternative system (Figure 1d) raises widows’ incomes compared to the current survivor’s pension system, but it is less generous than the system with the widow’s pension. At the same time 4.6 percent and 3.4 percent of widows would be found in the 9th and 10th deciles, respectively.

Importantly, the alternative support system is almost as effective in reducing the poverty risk among widows as the widow’s pension. In the latter case the share of at-risk-of poverty drops from 35.3 percent (with no support) and 20.7 percent (under the current system) to 11,0 percent, while under the alternative system, it drops to 11.8 percent. Because the alternative system limits additional support to households with higher incomes, this reduction in at-risk-of poverty would be achieved at a much lower cost to the public budget. We estimate that while the current reform proposal would result in annual cost of 24.1 bn PLN (5.6 bn EUR), the alternative design would cost only 10.5 bn PLN (2.5 bn EUR).

The distributional implications of the two reforms are presented in Figure 2 which shows the average gains in the incomes of ‘widowed’ households between the reformed versions of support and the current system with the survivor’s pension. The gains are presented by income decile of the married households. We see that the alternative system significantly limits the gains among households in the upper half of the income distribution.

Figure 2. Average gains from an implementation of the widow’s pension and the alternative system, by income decile groups.

Source: Own calculations based on HBS 2021 using the SIMPL model. Notes: Change in the disposable income with respect to the current system with survivor’s pension. 1PLN~0.23EUR.

Conclusions

While subjective evaluations of the material conditions of older persons living alone in Poland have shown significant improvements, income poverty within this groups has increased since 2015. This suggests that the incomes of older individuals have not sufficiently kept up with the dynamics of earnings of and social transfers to other social groups in Poland. As shown in our simulations, the current widowhood support system substantially limits the risk of poverty following the death of one’s partner. However, while the current survivor’s pension decreases the poverty risk from 35.3 percent in a system without any support to 20.7 percent, the risk of poverty among widows is still significantly higher compared to the risk faced by married couples.

The simulations presented in this Policy Brief examine the implications of a support system reform; the widow’s pension which is currently being discussed in the Polish Parliament, as well as an alternative proposal putting more emphasis on poorer households. The impactof these two reforms on the at-risk-of poverty levels among widowed individuals would be very similar, but the design of the alternative system would come at a significantly lower cost to the public budget. The total annual cost to the public sector of the widow’s pensions would amount to 24.1 bn PLN (5.6 bn EUR) while our proposed alternative would cost only 10.5 bn PLN (2.5 bn EUR) per year.

An effective policy design allowing the government to achieve its objectives at the lowest possible costs should always be among the government main priorities. This is especially important in times of high budget pressure – due to demographic changes or other risks – as is currently the case in Poland.

References

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.

 

Reforming Financial Support in Widowhood: The Current System in Poland and Potential Reforms

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In this policy paper, we discuss the material conditions of widows and widowers compared to married couples in Poland, and analyse the degree to which the current support system to those in widowhood in Poland limits the extent of poverty among this large and growing share of the population. The analysis is set in the context of a proposed reform recently discussed in the Polish Parliament. We present the budgetary and distributional consequences of this proposal and offer an alternative scenario which limits the overall cost of the policy and directs  additional resources to low income households.

Introduction

According to the National Census in 2021 there were about 2.2 million widows and 450 000 widowers in Poland. In the following year over 123 000 women and about 47 000 men became widowed. Apart from the severe consequences for mental health and psychological well-being, losing a partner typically has implications also for material wellbeing, in particular in cases of high income differentials between the spouses and in situations when the primary earner – often the man – dies first. Material conditions of the surviving spouse in widowhood depend on the one hand on the couple’s accumulated resources, and, on the other hand, on the available  support system. Many countries have instituted so-called survivors’ pensions, whereby the surviving spouse continues to receive some of the income of her/his deceased partner alongside other incomes. The systems of support differ substantially between countries and they often combine social security benefits and welfare support for those with the lowest incomes.

In this policy paper we discuss the material situation of widows and widowers versus married couples in Poland and analyse the degree to which the current Polish support system for  people in widowhood limits the extent of poverty within this group. We compare the current system of survivors’ pension with a proposed reform discussed lately in the Polish Parliament;the introduction of a ‘widow’s pension’. We present the budgetary and distributional consequences of the announced scheme and offer an alternative scenario which limits the overall cost of the policy and focuses additional resources on low income households. Our results show significant income gains for  widows/widowers from the implementation of the recently proposed widow’s pension. The policy however, would come at a substantial cost to the public purse, and the most significant benefits would be accrued by surviving partners at the top of the income distribution. Our proposed alternative scenario is better targeted at poorer households and achieves the objective of limiting poverty in widowhood at a substantially lower cost.

The Material Situation of Widows and Widowers in Poland

Numerous research papers show a strong impact of losing a spouse on mental health and overall well-being (Blanner Kristiansen et al., 2019; Lee et al., 2001; Ory & Huijts, 2015; Sasson & Umberson, 2014; Schaan, 2013; Siflinger, 2017; Steptoe et al., 2013). Adena et al. (2023) use a comprehensive dataset on older women observed a number of years before and after the death of their spouses. The study finds a sharp deterioration in mental health among widows after their partner’s death, displayed as a higher likelihood of crying (Figure 1a) or an increased probability of depression (Figure 1b). The authors provide evidence that, in comparison to similar women who remained partnered, widows suffer from poorer mental health and experience worsened quality of life for several years after their partners’ death.

Figure 1. Women’s mental health before and after their partners’ death.

Source: Adena et al. (2023). Notes: The control group consisted of women from statistical “twin” marriages with an identical distribution of selected characteristics; Figure 1b) Risk of depression defined as 4 or more depression symptoms according to the EURO-D scale. For methodological details see Adena et al. (2023).

While the impact of spouse’s death on widows mental health is largely undisputed, the impacts on their material situation are ambiguous (Ahn, 2005; Bíró, 2013; Bound et al., 1991; Corden et al., 2008; Hungerford, 2001).The differences across countries in the material situation of widowed versus partnered elderly people undoubtedly reflect countries’ various social security systems for those in widowhood. At the same time, these differences may also stem from variations in other factors that widows and widwers can rely on such as the prevalence of property ownership or accumulation of wealth and savings. It should be noted though, that in contrast to the immediate effects of spouse’s death on mental health, the consequences for widows’ and widowers’ material situation may unfold over a number of years. This is reflected in the results from poverty surveys which often point to the poorer material standing of widows and widowers (Panek et al., 2015; Petelczyc & Roicka, 2016; Timoszuk, 2017, 2021).

Similar conclusions can be derived from subjective evaluations of households’ material situation reflected in the Central Statistical Office’s Polish Household Budget Survey (HBS). In Figure 2a we present the percentage of people aged 65 and over who declared a ‘bad’ or ‘rather bad’ material situation of their household between 2010 and 2021, split between widows, widowers and married couples.. Throughout the analysed period, the share of both widows and widowers reporting a rather bad material situation was significantly higher than for married couples aged 65+. While in 2010 30 percent of widows and 20 percent of widowers reported a rather bad material standing, this share amounted to just above 10 percent among married couples. In all social groups the ratio of those in a rather bad material situation declined significantly over the analysed decade. A particularly significant drop was observed among widows; in 2021 the share of widows declaring a rather bad material situation declined to the level observed for married couples eleven years earlier.

Data capturing the risk of poverty from Eurostat, based on the EU Statistics on Income and Living Conditions Survey (EU-SILC), also display significantly worse material conditions of older individuals living alone compared to those living with another adult (Figure 2b). While this data does not explicitly allow us to divide the sample based on marital status, it is highly likely (and assumed hereafter) that the majority of single-person households 65+ cover widows or widowers, while two-person households aged 65+represent married couples. As compared to Figure 2a, the dynamics of the poverty levels among people aged 65+ in Figure 2b differ from the dynamics of the assessment of the overall material situation. Among two-person households, the risk of poverty in Poland declined between 2010 and 2013, and then remained relatively stable at about 15 percent until 2020. Among one-person households the poverty rate also declined during the first five years (from 33 percent in 2010 to 25 percent in 2015), however, it then increased to 37 percent in 2020. Consequently, the gap in poverty risk between two-person and one-person households increased substantially, from 8 percentage points in 2010 to 22 percentage points in 2020.

Figure 2. Material situation among households with individuals aged 65 and over.

Source: Own compilation based on: a) HBS; b) Eurostat. Notes: a) Widows and widowers aged 65+ living in one-person households; married couples living in two-person households with at least one spouse aged 65+; b) Eurostat data does not allow for division by gender or marital status. In two-person households both persons are adults, at least one is aged 65+. At-risk-of-poverty rate is defined as 60 percent of the median equivalized income of the entire population.

When analyzing poverty risk information, it should be noted that this indicator is based on income thresholds calculated separately for each year, accounting for the whole population. Poverty risk threshold may therefore increase as a result of income boosts among other groups and in consequence raise the risk of poverty of older people even if their real incomes are stable or grow. Thus the substantial increase in o the poverty risk share among Polish individuals 65+ and living alone after 2015, is related to the sharp rise in income of families with children and wage dynamics, which, in turn raised the poverty threshold considered in the analysis. Based on Figure 2b it is also worth noting that in comparison to Poland the risk of poverty among single-person households 65+ grew even faster in the Czech Republic (though the situation among two-person households 65+ was stable there). The  relative position of these households deteriorated also in Germany (the share at risk of poverty increased from 24 percent in 2010 to 31 percent in 2020). It is therefore clear that even though absolute material conditions may have improved among widowed households in Poland over the last decade, their relative position in the income distribution – as in many other countries – places them at a significantly greater risk of poverty compared to partnered older individuals. Questions regarding the level of state support directed towards widowed older individuals are therefore highly relevant for government policy.

Figure 3. The living situation of widows, widowers and married couples aged 65 and over, in Poland.

Source: Own compilation based on HBS. Notes: Widows and widowers aged 65+ living in one-person households. Married couples in two-person households with at least one spouse aged 65+.

To better understand the broader context of material conditions in widowhood, and to try to address the discrepancy between the trends in subjective evaluation and widows’ relative position in the income distribution, it is also worth examining other aspects of material well-being. In Figure 3a we present some statistics on property ownership. As we can see, the majority of individuals aged 65+ in Poland, both widowed and married, owned the house or flat they lived in. For example, in 2010 62 percent of all widows and 68 percent of all widowers owned their dwelling, and these shares increased to 72 percent for both groups by 2021. Moreover, among older owner occupiers, the size of the house or apartment per person living in it was on average two times larger for widows and widowers (50 m2) as compared to married couples (25 m2), as depicted in Figure 3b. The high share of widows and widowers owning housing assets may therefore be one of the most important explanations to the discrepancies between the dynamics of income poverty and the declarations about the overall material situation observed in recent years. Although the risk of relative income poverty among widows and widowers have increased since 2016 (after a period of decline between 2010 and 2015), widowhood in Poland is not unequivocally associated with poor material conditions. While some widowed individuals clearly face a challenging material situation, for many the current system of survivor’s pension seems to offer adequate protection against the risk of a significant financial deterioration following the loss of a spouse. This suggests that any additional support through a new social security instrument should be directed principally to a relatively narrow group of widows and widowers in order to help particularly those in a difficult financial situation.

Survivor’s Pension, Widow’s Pension and an Alternative Solution

In this part of the paper we present simulations of changes in the level of household income and the relative position in the income distribution among widows under different scenarios of support through the social security system. In the first step we use the 2021 HBS data (uprated to 2023 income levels) to calculate disposable incomes of the entire sample of nearly 31 000 households under the 2024 Polish tax-benefit system using the SIMPL tax and benefit microsimulation model (henceforth the ‘baseline’ system; more details on the SIMPL model: Myck et al., 2015, 2023a; Myck & Najsztub, 2014). Based on the baseline system, we divide the households into ten income decile groups according to their disposable income (equivalised, i.e. adjusted for household composition). In the second step we focus on the sample of 4188 married couples aged 65 and over, representing 1.7 million Polish households (almost 13 percent of the total population). 65 percent of these couples lived in two-person households and the remaining 35 percent cohabited also with other people. In the baseline system, the incomes received by these households placed 9.5 percent of them in the lowest (1st) income decile group and 4.4 percent in the highest (10th) group (see Table 1).

Table 1. Relative position of households with married couples aged 65+ in the income distribution.

Source: Own calculations based on HBS 2021 using the SIMPL model. Notes: The baseline system for calculating the equivalised income thresholds was the January 2024 system; the thresholds for the income decile groups were calculated on the basis of a full sample of households.

Figure 4a shows a comparison of men’s and women’s gross retirement pensions in our sample of married couples 65+ in the baseline system. Every dot corresponds to one married couple and a combination of the spouses’ pensions. The greater concentration of combinations of these values above the 45-degree line indicates that in most marriages , the husbands’ retirement pensions are higher than the wives’. The differences are also apparent in Figure 4b, which presents the percentages of individuals receiving a pension benefit within the given value range of the pension. The share of women are greater than the share of men at lower benefit values (below 3000 PLN gross per month), and the opposite is true for higher pension amounts. Overall, for 65 percent of all couples, the husband received a higher retirement pension than his wife. There are also older people who did not receive retirement benefits – either because they continued to work or because they were not entitled to a retirement pension (this is the case for 9 percent of husbands and 10 percent of wives), as illustrated by the first column in Figure 4b. It is worth noting that for 2 percent of the couples only the husband received a retirement pension (the wife had never worked and was not eligible for retirement pension or she still worked). In the current Polish system of support for surviving spouses, the amount of own and spouse’s retirement pension is crucial for the choice of the benefit one makes when a spouse dies. A widowed person can choose to continue receiving their own full retirement pension or to receive a survivor’s pension, which is equivalent to 85 percent of the pension of the deceased spouse. Given the differences between men’s and women’s pensions, many women choose the latter option, either because their own retirement pension is significantly lower than the survivor’s pension or because they are not entitled to their own retirement pension.

Figure 4. Retirement pension amounts received by husbands and wives aged 65+

Source: Own compilation based on HBS 2021. Notes: Both spouses aged 65 and over; gross monthly retirement pensions; in less than 1 percent of the marriages at least one spouse received a retirement pension higher than 10000 PLN (not included in the Figure). 1PLN~0.23EUR.

We treat the sample of married couples aged 65 years or more as a reference sample in our analysis of consequences from the implementation of various support schemes within the social security system, in the case of widowhood. The calculations presented below reflect the financial situation of the analysed sample after a hypothetical death of husbands. We focus on widows, as they represent the vast majority of widowed individuals (due to, e.g., longer life expectancy of women and age differences between spouses). We simulate four support scenarios:

I) a system with no support for widowed individuals – this would be the situation without the current survivor’s pension, in which widows would need to rely fully on their own social security incomes (pensions);

II) the current system of survivor’s pension: in which the widow must choose between 100 percent of her own pension or the survivor’s pension (85 percent of her deceased husband’s gross pension)

III) a system with the widow’s pension (currently debated in the Polish Parliament): the widow must choose between: a) 100 percent of her own pension + 50 percent of the survivor’s pension (42,5 percent of the deceased husband’s gross pension), b) 50 percent of her own pension + 100 percent of the survivor’s pension (85 percent of her dead husband’s gross pension);

IV) an alternative system in which the widow chooses between: a) 100 percent of her own pension + 50 percent of a minimum pension if her husband received at least minimum retirement pension (50 percent of the husband’s pension if it was lower than the minimum pension), b) 100 percent of the survivor’s pension (85 percent of the husband’s pension) increased to the minimum pension if the husband received at least minimum retirement pension.

While the simulations are based on a hypothetical death of a husband, they provide a realistic picture of the financial situation of households in which women face widowhood. It is also important to note that the simulations of the financial conditions of ‘widowed’ households take into account other potential forms of public social support such as housing benefits and social assistance for low-income households. The results thus include the most relevant forms of financial support individuals might receive from the Polish government.

Figure 5 shows the results of the four aforementioned scenarios in the form of flow charts between income decile groups. The starting point (the left-hand side of each chart) are the income groups of households with married couples aged 65+, i.e. before the simulated widowhood. The transition to the income deciles on the right hand side of each chart is the result of a change in equivalised disposable income in the widowhood simulation, under different support scenarios (I – IV). Thus, on the right hand side we observe the income groups in which the women would find themselves after the death of their husbands, conditional on the assumed system of support: without the survivor’s pension (system I, Figure 5a), with the survivor’s pension (system II, figure 5b), with the widow’s pension (system III, Figure 5c) and under the alternative system (system IV, Figure 5d).

Figure 5a shows that without any additional support the financial situation of older women would significantly deteriorate in the event of the death of their spouses (Figure 5a). The share of women whose income would place them in the lowest two decile groups would be as high as 54.7 percent (compared to 17.5 percent of married couples), and 82.8 percent of the widows would be in the bottom half of the income distribution (compared to 57 percent of married couples). The current survivor’s pension seems to protect a large proportion of women (Figure 5b), although the proportion of those who find themselves in the lowest two income decile groups still more than doubles relative to the situation of married couples, to 38.3 percent. Further, 74.9 percent of the widows would find themselves in the bottom half of the distribution. The proposed widow’s pension (Figure 5c) offers much greater support with a very high share of new widows remaining in the same decile or even moving to a higher income group. For example, with the widows’ pension 8.0 percent of women would be in the 9th income decile group and 5.3 percent in the 10th group, while, in comparison, 7.0 percent and 4.4 percent of married couples found themselves in these groups, respectively. 

Figure 5. Change in income decile among women aged 65+, following a hypothetical death of their husbands.

Source: Own calculations based on HBS 2021 using SIMPL model; graphs were created using: https://flourish.studio/

The proposed alternative system (Figure 5d) raises widows’ incomes compared to the current survivor’s pension system, but it is less generous than the system with the widow’s pension. Importantly however, it increases the incomes of widows in the lower income groups, which means that, compared to the current system, the number of women dropping to the poorest income groups following their husband’s death would be significantly reduced (24.0 percent would be in the lowest two deciles). At the same time 4.6 percent and 3.4 percent of the widows would be placed in the 9th and the 10th decile groups, respectively.

Table 2 shows the change in the poverty risk among the women in five considered scenarios, i.e. before they become widowed and after the hypothetical death of their husband under the considered four systems of support. 10.5 percent of married couples aged 65+ had equivalised disposable incomes which placed them below the poverty line calculated in the baseline system. After the simulated death of a husband, in a scenario without the survivor’s pension, the poverty rate among widows would increase to 35.3 percent, while the current survivor’s pension limits it to 20.7 percent. Poverty would be further reduced in the two systems with considered reforms: to 11.0 percent the widow’s pension system and to 11.8 percent in the alternative system.

Table 2. At-risk-of-poverty rates in the analysed scenarios.

Source: Own calculations based on HBS 2021 using the SIMPL model. Notes: The at-risk-of-poverty threshold is set at 60 percent of median equivalised disposable income in the baseline system.

Total Costs of the Considered Schemes

As mentioned above, the presented simulations take into account the conditions of current older couples. Therefore, we cannot directly calculate the consequences of the two suggested systems (the widow’s pension system and the alternative system) for those who are already widowed. This applies in particular to the present-day cost from the suggested changes to the widowhood support schemes to the public budget . In order to accurately estimate the changes in already widowed people’s incomes, we would have to have the information on the values of widow’s pensions and of pensions that their deceased spouses received when they were still alive, information that is not available in the HBS.

Nevertheless, our simulations allow us to compare the aggregated costs of support for women in the simulated widowhood scenarios under different support systems. Such calculations suggest that an implementation of the widow’s pension would increase the gross benefits received by widows by 34.2 percent compared to the current survivor’s pension system., while the alternative system would raise them by 14.7 percent. Applying these growth rates to the social security benefits currently received by widows and widowers (from the HBS data) implies additional annual costs of 24.1 bn PLN (5.6 bn EUR) under the widow’s pension system, and 10.5 bn PLN (2.5 bn EUR) under the alternative system.

Who Gains the Most?

From a distributional perspective, the simulated outcomes of the two suggested systems of support in widowhood can be compared to the baseline situation. In Figure 6 we show average changes in widowed women’s disposable income resulting from a change from the current system with survivor’s pension to the system with widow’s pension, and to our alternative design. Gross monthly survivor’s pensions of the widows are divided into seven groups, starting from 0-500 PLN up to 5501 PLN and more. One can clearly see that women who would, on average, gain the most from the implementation of the widow’s pension are those who already have a relatively high survivor’s pension in the current system. The average rise in disposable income (net) among those with gross monthly pensions between 4501 and 5500 PLN would be 1200 PLN, if widow’s pension was implemented. In contrast, women who receive 501-1500 PLN (gross) per month under the current survivor’s pension, would see a net monthly gain of about 350 PLN. These women would benefit slightly more under the alternative system – on average about 390 PLN, while much lower increases (on average about 220 PLN per month) would be faced by women in the 4501-5500 PLN group. Women in the last group, with gross monthly pensions of 5501 PLN and more under the current survivor’s pension system, would additionally gain even less in the alternative system – on average about 170 PLN. Thus overall, greater gains would accrue to those with lower current benefits in the alternative system.

Figure 6. Average increase in disposable income among widows by current survivor’s pensions’ value group.

Source: Own calculations based on HBS 2021 using the SIMPL model. Notes: Change in the disposable income with respect to the current system with survivor’s pension. 1PLN~0.23EUR.

In Figure 7 we categorise the sample of widows in terms of the range of their gains resulting from the two analysed reforms. The gains are calculated as changes in disposable income between the current system of support and the modelled reforms. We see that 20 percent of widows would gain over 1000 PLN extra per month as a result of the widow’s pension’s reform, while a further 24 percent would gain between 801 to 1000 PLN and 28 percent could expect to see a gain of between 601-800 PLN per month. The reform would leave the incomes of only about 12 percent of the widows unchanged – most of them are women who are not eligible for their own retirement pensions. In the alternative system the incomes of 34 percent of the analysed widows would remain unaffected. This group of women includes not only those without their own retirement pensions, but also those whose husbands received much higher pensions than themselves. This means that even if a widow’s retirement pension were to increase by 50 percent of the minimum pension, it would still be lower than 85 percent of her spouse’s retirement pension (see Figure 4a). In the alternative system about 17 percent of women in the sample would increase their disposable income by less than 400 PLN per month. For 28 percent, the increase would be in the range of between 400 and 600 PLN per month. While 21 percent would receive increased benefits under the alternative system, none of the hypothetical widows would receive more than 800 PLN per month.

Figure 7. Share of women by ranges of increases from the widow’s pension and the alternative scenario.

Source: Own calculations based on HBS 2021 using the SIMPL model. Notes: Change in the disposable income with respect to the current system with survivor’s pension. 1PLN~0.23EUR.

Figure 8 presents the average effect of the modelled reforms on disposable incomes of women in the sample, divided by income decile groups. Households were assigned to one of ten income groups based on their equivalised disposable income in the baseline system (i.e. according to the joint income of the couples). Figure 8 reflects the distribution of gains from the implementation of the widow’s pension or the alternative system. In the first case, the highest gains would be concentrated among the richest households. While women in the 8th and 9th income decile would, on average, receive an increase in their disposable income of about 1100 PLN per month, those in the 2nd decile group would, on average, receive only an additional 470 PLN per month. The distribution under the alternative system is far more concentrated on low income households. The highest average additional gain of about 420 PLN per month would be granted to widows from the 3rd income decile group, and benefits to women in the upper half of the income distribution would be significantly lower. Women in the top decile would gain, on average, only about 280 PLN per month. In many of the poorest households in our sample of couples, neither partner qualifies for a retirement pension. As a result, widows in this group would experience significantly lower average gains under both analyzed systems compared to those in higher income brackets.

Figure 8. Average gains due to the implementation of widow’s pension and the alternative system, by income decile group.

Source: Own calculations based on HBS 2021 using the SIMPL model. Notes: Change in the disposable income with respect to the current system with survivor’s pension. 1PLN~0.23EUR. Assignment to the income group was done prior to the hypothetical death of husbands.

Conclusion

In 2021 only 10 percent of the Polish widows and 8 percent of the Polish widowers aged 65 and more evaluated their material situation as rather bad, percentages that had dropped significantly since 2010. According to the HBS the majority of widowed individuals in Poland are also owners of the dwelling they live in. At the same time, income poverty among older persons living alone has increased in Poland since 2015, suggesting that despite the subjective evaluations, incomes of these older individuals – many of whom are widowed – have not managed to keep up with the dynamics of earnings and social transfers aimed at other demographic groups in Poland. As showed in our simulations, the current widowhood support system in Poland substantially limits the risk of poverty following the death of one’s partner. However, while the current survivor’s pension decreases the poverty risk from 35.3 percent (in a system without any support) to 20.7 percent, the risk of poverty among widows is still significantly higher compared to the risk faced by married couples.

The simulations analysed in this Policy Paper has covered the proposal of a support system reform, thewidow’s pension, which is currently discussed in the Polish Parliament. The simulations also covered an alternative alternative proposal putting more emphasis on poorer households. Both of these reforms would provide additional support to individuals affected by widowhood. In the case of the widow’s pension the average value of social security benefits would increase by 34.2 percent, whereas the alternative scenario would increase these benefits by 14.7 percent. If the pensions of current widows and widowers were to be increase by these proportions, the total annual cost to the public sector would amount to 24.1 bn PLN (5.6 bn EUR) and 10.5 bn PLN (2.5 bn EUR) per year, respectively. As shown above, the impact of these two reforms on poverty levels among widowed individuals would be very similar – the reforms would reduce it to 11.0 and 11.8 percent, respectively. The substantial difference in the total cost of these two alternatives is mainly due to the fact that the bulk of the additional benefits from the implementation of the widow’s pension is concentrated among high-income widows and widowers, while the highest profits in the modelled alternative system are targeted at households at the bottom of the income distribution.

If the aim of the potential legislative changes is to support widows and widowers in a difficult material situation and to reduce the extent of poverty, the widow’s pension currently discussed in the Polish Parliament seems to be far from ideal. As demonstrated in this Policy Paper, additional support addressed to widows and widowers in Poland can be designed in a way that substantially reduces the risk of poverty, with limitations on benefit increases to those already in a favourable financial situation. Our proposed alternative system would generate higher incomes for the poorest widows and widowers similar to the widow’s pension, while its cost to the public budget would be less than half of the cost of the discussed widow’s pension reform.

References

  • Adena, M., Hamermesh, D., Myck, M., & Oczkowska, M. (2023). Home Alone: Widows’ Well-Being and Time. Journal of Happiness Studies. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-023-00622-w
  • Ahn, N. (2005). Financial consequences of widowhood in Europe: Cross-country and gender differences.
  • Bíró, A. (2013). Adverse effects of widowhood in Europe. Advances in Life Course Research, 18(1), 68–82. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.alcr.2012.10.005
  • Blanner Kristiansen, C., Kjær, J. N., Hjorth, P., Andersen, K., & Prina, A. M. (2019). Prevalence of common mental disorders in widowhood: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Affective Disorders, 245, 1016–1023. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2018.11.088
  • Bound, J., Duncan, G. J., Laren, D. S., & Oleinick, L. (1991). Poverty Dynamics in Widowhood. Journal of Gerontology, 46(3), S115–S124. https://doi.org/10.1093/geronj/46.3.S115
  • Corden, A., Hirst, M., Nice, K., University of York, & Social Policy Research Unit. (2008). Financial implications of death of a partner. Social Policy Research Unit, University of York.
  • Hungerford, T. L. (2001). The Economic Consequences of Widowhood on Elderly Women in the United States and Germany. The Gerontologist, 41(1), 103–110. https://doi.org/10.1093/geront/41.1.103
  • Lee, G. R., DeMaris, A., Bavin, S., & Sullivan, R. (2001). Gender Differences in the Depressive Effect of Widowhood in Later Life. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, 56(1), S56–S61. https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/56.1.S56
  • Myck, M., Król, A., Oczkowska, M., & Trzciński, K. (2023a). Komentarze Przedwyborcze CenEA 2023: Druga kadencja rządów Zjednoczonej Prawicy: Wsparcie rodzin w czasach wysokiej inflacji. https://cenea.org.pl/2023/09/13/wybory-parlamentarne-2023-w-polsce-komentarze-przedwyborcze-cenea/
  • Myck, M., Król, A., Oczkowska, M., & Trzciński, K. (2023b). Komentarze Przedwyborcze CenEA 2023: Materiały metodyczne. https://cenea.org.pl/2023/09/13/wybory-parlamentarne-2023-w-polsce-komentarze-przedwyborcze-cenea/
  • Myck, M., Michał Kundera, Najsztub, M., & Oczkowska, M. (2015). Przedwyborcze miliardy: Jak je wydać i skąd je wziąć (II; Raport Przedwyborczy CenEA 2015). CenEA. http://cenea.org.pl/Badania/Research/raportvat.html
  • Myck, M., & Najsztub, M. (2014). Data and Model Cross-validation to Improve Accuracy ofMicrosimulation Results: Estimates for the Polish Household Budget Survey. International Journal of Microsimulation, 8(1), 33–66. https://doi.org/10.34196/ijm.00111
  • Myck, M., Najsztub, M., Oczkowska, M., & Trzciński, K. (2019). Pakiet podatkowo-świadczeniowych rozwiązań rządu Zjednoczonej Prawicy. Raport Przedwyborczy CenEA 12/04/2019. https://cenea.org.pl/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/raportcenea12042019.pdf
  • Ory, B., & Huijts, T. (2015). Widowhood and Well-being in Europe: The Role of National and Regional Context. Journal of Marriage and Family, 77(3), 730–746. https://doi.org/10.1111/jomf.12187
  • Panek, T., Kotowska, I., & Sączewska-Piotrowska, A. (2015). Sytuacja materialna gospodarstw domowych osób starszych. W Rynek pracy i wykluczenie społeczne w kontekście percepcji Polaków. Diagnoza Społeczna 2015. Raport tematyczny. (s. 107–137).
  • Petelczyc, J., & Roicka, P. (2016). Sytuacja kobiet w systemie emerytalnym. Instytut Spraw Publicznych. https://www.isp.org.pl/pl/publikacje/sytuacja-kobiet-w-systemie-emerytalnym
  • Sasson, I., & Umberson, D. J. (2014). Widowhood and Depression: New Light on Gender Differences, Selection, and Psychological Adjustment. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 69B(1), 135–145. https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/gbt058
  • Schaan, B. (2013). Widowhood and Depression Among Older Europeans—The Role of Gender, Caregiving, Marital Quality, and Regional Context. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 68(3), 431–442. https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/gbt015
  • Siflinger, B. (2017). The Effect of Widowhood on Mental Health—An Analysis of Anticipation Patterns Surrounding the Death of a Spouse. Health Economics, 26(12), 1505–1523. https://doi.org/10.1002/hec.3443
  • Steptoe, A., Shankar, A., Demakakos, P., & Wardle, J. (2013). Social isolation, loneliness, and all-cause mortality in older men and women. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(15), 5797–5801. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1219686110
  • Timoszuk, S. (2017). Wdowieństwo a sytuacja materialna kobiet w starszym wieku w Polsce. Studia Demograficzne, nr 2(172), 121–138. http://yadda.icm.edu.pl/yadda/element/bwmeta1.element.ekon-element-000171500466
  • Timoszuk, S. (2021). Wdowieństwo w starszym wieku. O sytuacji finansowej wdów w Polsce.

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.

Greening Politics – Navigating Environmental Policy Consistency Amidst Political Change

20240318 SITE Energy Talk

The Stockholm Institute of Transition Economics (SITE) and the Forum for Research on Eastern Europe: Climate and Environment (FREECE) would like to invite you to its 2024 SITE Energy Talk. This edition will address the complexities of upholding environmental policies amidst a changing political landscape.

In the ongoing battle against climate change, maintaining our environmental commitments is more crucial than ever. However, the evolving landscape of global politics, marked by shifting international relations and significant concerns regarding democratic regression, presents escalating challenges to the continuity of our environmental objectives and obligations. This year’s SITE Energy Talk will prioritize the identification of risks posed by political transitions to our environmental aspirations and explore strategies for maintaining the credibility of environmental policies in the face of political flux.

Speakers

Michaël Aklin

Michaël Aklin, Associate Professor of Economics and holder of the Chair of Policy & Sustainability (PASU) at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne, who will offer a broader European perspective.

 

 

 

Thomas Tangerås

Thomas Tangerås, Associate Professor, Program Director at the Research Institute of Industrial Economics (IFN), who will address the Swedish perspective on the issue.

 

 

 

Paweł Wróbel

Paweł Wróbel, Energy and climate regulatory affairs professional. Founder of GateBrussels and Managing Director of BalticWind.EU, who will present Polish perspective on green transition in the face of European and regional challenges.

Registration

The event will take place in room Torsten, Sveavägen 65, 113 50 Stockholm (the main building of SSE) and the registration opens at 11.45 near room Torsten.

The event will also be streamed online via Zoom for those who cannot join the event in person. Please register via the Trippus platform:

NOTE: A light lunch will be provided for those who pre-register for in-person participation.

Please contact site@hhs.se if you have any questions regarding the event.

Highlights from Previous SITE Energy Talk Events

SITE Energy Talk is an annual event. The purpose is to bring together scholars and practitioners to discuss recent developments in the energy markets and regulation, such as:

Polish Parliamentary Elections 2023: Social Transfers and the Voters the Government is Counting On

20231009 Polish Parliamentary Elections Image 02

The heated election campaign preceding the October 15th election in Poland has focused on fundamental issues related to the rule of law, migration, media freedom, women’s and minority rights, climate policy as well as Poland’s role on the international arena. The election outcome will determine Poland’s role in the EU and as well as the country’s future relations with Ukraine. It will also be decisive for the direction of Polish politics and the foundations of socio-economic development for many years to come. Despite these issues, the primary worries for a substantial portion of Polish households concern the domestic challenges of increasing prices and material uncertainty. With this in mind, this Policy Brief summarizes the results of CenEA’s recent analysis, which demonstrates a clear pattern in the United Right government’s policy, that in the last four years has strongly favored older groups of the Polish population. In the 2019 elections financial support directed to families with children was a key factor in securing a second term in office for the governing coalition. It remains to be seen if the focus on older voters pays off in the same way on October 15th.

Introduction

The upcoming parliamentary elections on October 15th will close a very special term of the Polish Parliament, marked by the Covid-19 pandemic, a surge in prices of goods and services, as well as the full-scale, ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine and the tragic consequences associated with it. An evaluation of the second term of the United Right’s (Zjednoczona Prawica) government should, on the one hand, cover the most important decisions made in response to these crises. On the other hand, the last four years have also been a time of significant decisions with important medium- and long-term consequences, both directly for Polish households’ financial situation and more broadly for the economy at large and the country’s socio-economic development.

The heated election campaign has focused on the fundamental issues related to the rule of law, migration, media freedom, women’s and minority rights, climate policy as well as Poland’s role on the international arena. The upcoming vote is likely to be decisive in regard to Poland’s relations with partners in the EU, the role it will play in the EU and – as recent government declarations have demonstrated – the development of future relations with Ukraine. The result of the October elections will be pivotal also for the direction of Polish politics and the foundations of socio-economic development for many years to come. At the same time however, recent surveys have shown that the main concern for a significant part of the Polish society lies closer to home, driven by the challenges of rising prices of goods and services and related material uncertainty.

In light of this, this policy brief summarizes the tax and benefit policies directly affecting household finances, which were implemented in the first and second term of the United Right’s rule (i.e., 2015-2019 and 2019-2023). The brief draws upon a detailed analysis published recently in the CenEA Preelection Commentaries (Myck et al. 2023 a,b,c). The results show a notable shift in the government’s focus – while families with children were the main beneficiaries of the reforms implemented in the first term, the policies over the last four years have concentrated transfers and tax advantages to older generations. As we approach election day, it seems likely that the government will further try to mobilize support from this group of voters

The United Right’s Second Term: Tax and Benefit Reforms During High Inflation

In recent years, Polish households has, apart from two major crises (the Covid-19 pandemic and the complex consequences from the Russian invasion of Ukraine), faced one of the greatest price increases in the EU. During the closing term of Parliament, from January 2020 to July 2023, prices increased by 35.6 percent and have continued to grow at a rate significantly exceeding the inflation target set by the National Bank of Poland (2.5 percent +/- 1 percentage point per year). By the end of 2023 the combined inflation rate will reach 38.7 percent. Although average wages have also been rising (nominally by 41.7 percent from January 2023 to July 2023), wage growth has not kept up with the inflation for many workers. One needs to also bear in mind that a significant proportion of Polish households rely on income from transfers and state support. At the same time households’ material conditions have deteriorated as a result of a significant reduction in the real value of their savings.

In 2022 and 2023 the government introduced a number of temporary policies designed specifically to assist households facing higher energy and food prices. Throughout the final term in office, it also adopted several reforms which – as we show below – affected some groups more than others, reflecting a clear policy preference:

a) in January 2020 and May 2022 respectively, the government legislated an additional level of support addressed to retirees and disability pensioners. These so-called 13th and 14th pensions have raised the minimum level of pension benefits.

b) in January 2022 the government implemented a major overhaul of the income tax system (the so-called Polish Deal) which significantly influenced the tax burden on most taxpayers, strongly benefitting pension recipients.

c) throughout the term of Parliament, the government has kept the values of most social benefits frozen at their nominal level. This includes its flagship program – the universal 500+ parental benefit (500 PLN, roughly 110 EUR per child per month), introduced in 2016 – as well as means tested family benefits directed to poorer families with children. As a result, both the values as well as eligibility thresholds has fallen by nearly 40 percent.

The implications of these three policy areas are reported in Table 1 for the 2019-2023 term of Parliament and contrasted with benefits and costs from government policies implemented in the first term of Parliament (2015-2019). The results have been calculated using the SIMPL microsimulation model and are based on a representative sample of over 30 000 Polish households from the 2021 Household Budget Survey (for methodological details see Myck et al., 2015; 2023c). The applied method allows for singling out policy effects from other factors affecting household incomes.

Table 1 shows a clear difference in focus; from substantial benefits directed at families with children in 2015-2019 to policies targeted at pensioners, partly at the cost of families with children, in the second term. It is also worth noting that while government policy continued to increase household incomes, the resulting gains in disposable incomes in the second term have been much more modest.

Table 1. The impact of modelled policies in the tax and benefit system on household income in the two terms of the United Right’s government.

Source: CenEA – own calculations using the SIMPL model based on 2021 Household Budget Survey data (reweighted for simulation purposes and indexed to July 2023).
Notes: Simulations with respect to the system and price level from July 2023. Changes are presented in relation to the indexed system from 2015 for the first term of office of the United Right government and the indexed system from 2019 for the second term of office. *Including family allowance with supplements, care benefits, parental leave benefit, and one-off allowance for the birth of a child. The applied exchange rate is 4.6PLN=1EUR.

The contrast is also visible when the totals from Table 1 are divided and allocated to specific family types, as presented in Figure 1. On average lone parent families gained about 800 PLN (170 EUR) per month as a result of policies implemented in the 2015-2019 term, while they lost 160 PLN (35 EUR) in the second term. Married couples with children gained 950 PLN (205 EUR) and lost 259 PLN (55 EUR) in each term, respectively. In contrast to this, gains of pensioner families were modest during the first term, while the policies implemented in the second term imply gains of about 310 PLN (70 EUR) per month for single pensioners and 630 PLN (140 EUR) per month to pensioner couples. Gains and losses by family type resulting from policies implemented between 2019-2023 are shown in more detail in Figure 2. Over 85 percent of single pensioners have seen gains of more than 200 PLN (45 EUR) per month, and a similar proportion of pensioner couples gained over 400 PLN (90 EUR) per month. At the same time the majority of families with children, both among lone parent families and married couples, principally as a result of benefit freezes, saw their incomes fall in real terms. The values of the universal 500+ parental benefit will be indexed in January 2024, and the government has made this indexation an important element of the campaign. However, the indexation will not compensate the losses that families experienced in the last four years, a period with high inflation. It remains to be seen if a promise of higher transfers in the future will translate into political support, as seen in the 2019 elections (Gromadzki et al. 2022).

Figure 1. The impact of modelled policies in the tax and benefit system on household income in the two terms of the United Right’s government, by family types.

Source: CenEA – own calculations using the SIMPL microsimulation model based on 2021 Household Budget Survey data (reweighted for simulation purposes and indexed to July 2023).

Figure 2. Ranges of monthly benefits and losses resulting from the modelled policies introduced in the United Right government’s second term of office (2019-2023), by family type.

Source: CenEA – own calculations using the SIMPL microsimulation model based on 2021 Household Budget Survey data (reweighted for simulation purposes and indexed to July 2023).

Timing and Other Tricks: Securing the Votes of Older Generations

The so-called 13th and 14th pensions are paid once per year, in May and September respectively, to recipients of public pensions, at a value equivalent to a monthly minimum pension (approximately 360 EUR). While the first is a universal benefit, the latter has a withdrawal threshold and is thus targeted at lower income pensioners. In 2023 the government decided to increase the value of the 14th pension to about 580 EUR, with the benefits paid out to pensioners in September, the month before the election. This additional bonus came at the cost of about 7 billion PLN (1.6 billion EUR) – a budget which could have paid for two years of indexation of benefits targeted at low-income families with children or financed the payment of the indexed value of the universal 500+ parental benefit for nearly four months. The decision completes the picture of a clear preference for the older generation in regard to social policy in recent years and suggests a clear focus on this group of voters prior to the upcoming election.

The government has also taken a number of steps to facilitate electoral participation among voters in smaller communities by increasing the number of polling stations and making it obligatory for local administrations to finance transportation for older individuals with mobility limitations. The government is also mobilizing voters in smaller communities with turn-out competition initiatives. Additionally, some commentators have pointed out that the choice of election day – one day ahead of the so-called ‘Papal day’, devoted to the memory of John Paul II – is also non-accidental.

Conclusion

The analysis presented in the recent CenEA Preelection Commentaries and summarized in this brief indicates that in the area of reforms directly affecting household incomes, pensioners are the social group that benefited most from the United Right’s government policies in the 2019-2023 term of office. This is evident both from policies that have become a permanent feature of the Polish tax and benefit system, as well as from various one-off decisions. Taking into account other policies surrounding the approaching parliamentary election, it seems clear that the government is strongly counting on the support of older generations of voters on October 15th. As election day is approaching it becomes more and more evident though, that securing their vote may not suffice to win a third term in office. Numerous policy and corruption scandals, a significant departure from judicial independence and an extreme degree of governing party dominance in public media have come to the fore of public debate ahead of the vote. According to recent polls the final outcome is still uncertain and even small shifts in support might swing the future parliamentary majority. According to Gromadzki et al. (2022), financial support directed to families with children was a key factor for securing a second term in office for the United Right coalition four years ago. It remains to be seen if the policy focus on older voters pays off in the same way on October 15th.

Acknowledgement

The authors wish to acknowledge the support of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) under the FROGEE and FROMDEE projects. FREE Policy Briefs contribute to the discussion on socio-economic development in the Central and Eastern Europe. For more information, please visit www.freepolicybriefs.com.

References

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.

What Can We Learn from Regional Patterns of Mortality During the Covid-19 Pandemic?

Doctor outside COVID-19 isolation center representing covid-19 pandemic mortality

Given the nature of the spread of the virus, strong regional patterns in fatal consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic are to be expected. This brief summarizes a detailed examination of the spatial correlation of deaths in the first year of the pandemic in two neighboring countries – Germany and Poland. Among high income European countries, these two seem particularly different in terms of the death toll associated with the pandemic, with many more excess deaths recorded in Poland as compared to Germany. Detailed spatial analysis of deaths at the regional level shows a consistent spatial pattern in deaths officially registered as related to Covid-19 in both countries. For excess deaths, however, we find a strong spatial correlation in Germany but little such evidence in Poland. These findings point towards important failures or neglect in the areas of healthcare and public health in Poland, which resulted in a massive loss of life.

Introduction

While almost all European countries currently refrain from imposing any Covid-19 related restrictions, the pandemic still takes a huge economic, health and social toll across societies worldwide. The regional variation of incidence and different consequences of the pandemic, observed over time, should be examined to draw lessons for ongoing challenges and future pandemics. This brief outlines a recently published paper by Myck et al. (2023) in which we take a closer look at two neighboring countries, Germany and Poland.  Within the pool of high-income countries, these are particularly different in terms of the death toll associated with the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2020 in Poland, the excess deaths rate (with reference to the 2016-2019 average) was as high as 194 per 100,000 inhabitants, over 3 times higher than the 62 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants in Germany (EUROSTAT, 2022a, 2022b). While, in relative terms, the death toll officially registered as resulting from Covid-19 infections in 2020 was also higher in Poland than in Germany, the difference was considerably lower (about 75 vs 61 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, respectively) (Ministry of Health, 2022; RKI, 2021). Population-wise Germany is 2.2 times larger than Poland and, before the pandemic struck, the countries differed also in other relevant dimensions related to the socio-demographic structure of the population, healthcare and public health. The nature of Covid-19 and the high degree of regional variation between and within the two countries along some crucial dimensions thus make Germany and Poland an interesting international case for comparison of the pandemic’s consequences. We show that the differences in the spatial pattern of deaths between Germany and Poland may provide valuable insight to the reasons behind the dramatic differences in the aggregate numbers of fatalities (Myck et al., 2023).

Regional Variation in Pandemic-Related Mortality and Pre-Pandemic Characteristics

We examine three measures of mortality in the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic in 401 German and 380 Polish counties (Kreise and powiats, respectively): the officially recorded Covid-19 deaths, the total numbers of excessive deaths (measured as the difference in the number of total deaths in year 2020 and the 2015-2019 average) and the difference between the two measures. Figure 1 shows the regional distribution of these three measures calculated per 1000 county inhabitants. All examined indicators were generally much higher in Poland as compared to Germany. In Poland, deaths officially registered as caused by Covid-19 were concentrated in the central and south-eastern regions (łódzkie and lubelskie voivodeships), while in Germany they were concentrated in the east and the south (Sachsen and Bayern). Excess mortality was predominantly high in German regions with high numbers of Covid-19 deaths, but also in nearby regions. As a result, these same regions also show greater differences between excessive deaths and Covid-19 deaths. On the contrary, high excessive deaths can be noted throughout Poland, including the regions where the number of Covid-19 deaths were lower. In the case of Poland, spatial clusters are much less obvious for both excess deaths and the difference between excess and Covid-19 deaths. To further explore the degree of regional variation between and within countries with respect to the mortality outcomes, we link them to regional characteristics such as population, healthcare and economic conditions, which might be relevant for both the spread of the virus and the risk of death from Covid-19. In Figure 2 we illustrate the scope of regional disparities with examples of (a) age structure of the population, (b) the pattern of economic activity and (c) distribution of healthcare facilities in years prior to the pandemic.

Figure 1. Regional variation of death incidence in 2020: Germany and Poland.

Note: The panels share a common legend based on the quintile distribution of Covid-19 deaths, with two additional categories added at the top and bottom of the scale. County borders in white, regional borders in yellow and country border in grey. Source: Myck et al. (2023).

Figure 2. Pre-pandemic regional variation of socio-economic indicators: Germany and Poland.

Note: Two top and bottom categories in the legend cover 10% of observations each, the rest of categories cover 20% of observations each. County borders in white, regional borders in yellow and country border in grey. Source: Myck et al. (2023).

Shares of older population groups (aged 85+ years) are clearly substantially higher in Germany compared to Poland, and within both countries these shares are higher in the eastern regions. On the other hand, the proportion of labor force employed in agriculture is significantly higher in Poland and heavily concentrated in the eastern parts of the country. In Germany, this share is much lower and more evenly spread. This indicator illustrates that socio-economic conditions in 2020 were still substantially different between the two countries. The share of employed in agriculture is also important from the point of view of pandemic risks – it reflects lower levels of education, and specific working conditions that make it challenging to work remotely yet entail less personal contact and more outdoor labor. The distribution of hospital beds reflects the urban/rural divide in both countries. It is also a good proxy for detailing the differences in the overall quality of healthcare between the two countries, i.e. displaying significantly better healthcare infrastructure in German counties.

Uncovering the Spatial Nature of Excess Deaths in Germany and Poland

While spatial similarities among regions are present along many dimensions, they are particularly important when discussing such phenomena as pandemics, when infection spread affects nearby regions more than distant ones. With regard to the spatial nature of excess deaths in the first year of the pandemic, a natural hypothesis is thus that the pattern of these deaths should reflect the nature of contagion. This applies primarily to excess deaths directly caused by the pandemic (deaths resulting from infection with the virus). At the same time, some indirect consequences of Covid-19 such as limitations on the availability of hospital places and medical procedures, or lack of medical personnel to treat patients not affected by Covid-19, are also expected to be greater in regions with a higher incidence of Covid-19. On the other hand, spatial patterns are much less obvious in cases where excess deaths would result, for example, from externally or self-imposed restrictions such as access to primary health care, reduced contact with other people, diminished family support, or mental health problems due to isolation. While these should also be regarded as indirect consequences of the pandemic, as they would arguably not have realized in its absence, these consequences do not necessarily relate to the actual spread of the virus. Our in-depth analysis of the spatial distribution of the three examined mortality-related measures, therefore, allows us to make a crucial distinction in possible explanations for the dramatic differences in the observed death toll in the first year of the pandemic in Germany and Poland. We explore the degree of spatial correlation in the three mortality outcomes using multivariate spatial autoregressive models, controlling for a number of local characteristics (for more details see Myck et al., 2023).

We find that in Germany, all mortality measures show very strong spatial correlation. In Poland, we also confirm statistically significant spatial correlation of Covid-19 deaths. However, we find no evidence for such spatial pattern either in the total excess deaths or in the difference between excess deaths and Covid-19 deaths. In other words, in Poland, the deaths over and above the official Covid-19 deaths do not reflect the features to be expected during a pandemic. As the results of the spatial analysis show, these findings cannot be explained by the regional pre-pandemic characteristics but require alternative explanations. This suggests that a high proportion of deaths results from a combination of policy deficits and individual reactions to the pandemic in Poland. Firstly, during the pandemic, individuals in Poland may have principally withdrawn from various healthcare interventions as a result of fear of infection. Secondly, those with serious health conditions unrelated to the pandemic may have received insufficient care during the Covid-19 crisis in Poland, and, as a consequence, died prematurely. This may have been a result of lower effectiveness of online medical consultations, excessive limitations to hospital admissions – unjustified from the point of view of the spread of the virus, and/or worsened access to healthcare services as a result of country-wide lockdowns and mobility limitations. The deaths could also have resulted from reduced direct contact with other people (including family and friends as well as care personnel) and mental health deterioration as a consequence of (self)isolation. Our analysis does not allow us to differentiate between these hypotheses, but the aggregate excess deaths data suggests that a combination of the above reasons came at a massive cost in terms of loss of lives. The consequences reflect a very particular type of healthcare policy failure or policy neglect in the first year of the pandemic in Poland.

Our study also shows that a detailed analysis of country differences concerning the consequences of the ongoing pandemic can serve as a platform to set and test hypotheses about the effectiveness of policy responses to better tackle future global health crises.

Acknowledgement

The authors wish to acknowledge the support of the German Research Foundation (DFG, project no: BR 38.6816-1) and the Polish National Science Centre (NCN, project no: 2018/31/G/HS4/01511) in the joint international Beethoven Classic 3 funding scheme – project AGE-WELL. For the full list of acknowledgements see Myck et al. (2023).

References

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.

Understanding the Economic and Social Context of Gender-based and Domestic Violence in Central and Eastern Europe – Preliminary Survey Evidence

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This brief presents preliminary findings from a cross-country survey on perceptions and prevalence of domestic and gender-based violence conducted in September 2021 in eight countries: Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Latvia, Poland, Russia, Sweden and Ukraine. We discuss the design and content of the study and present initial information on selected topics that were covered in the survey. The collected data has been used in three studies presented at the FROGEE Conference on “Economic and Social Context of Domestic Violence” and offers a unique resource to study gender-based violence in the region.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the academic and policy interest in the causes and consequences of domestic violence, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has tragically reminded us about the gender dimension of war. There is no doubt that a gender lens is a necessary perspective to understand and appreciate the full consequences of these two ongoing crises.

The tragic reason behind the increased attention given to domestic violence during the COVID-19 lockdowns is the substantial evidence that gender-based violence has intensified to such an extent that the United Nations raised the alarm about a “shadow pandemic” of violence against women and girls (UN Women on-line link). Already before the pandemic, one in three women worldwide had experienced physical or sexual violence, usually at the hands of an intimate partner, and this number has only been increasing. The tragic reports from the military invasion of Ukraine concerning violence against women and children, as well as information on the heightened risks faced by war refugees from Ukraine, most of whom are women, should only intensify our efforts to better understand the background behind these processes and study the potential policy solutions to limit them to a minimum in the current and future crises.

The most direct consequences of gender-based and domestic violence – to the physical and mental health of the victims – are clearly of the highest concern and are the leading arguments in favour of interventions aimed at limiting the scale of violence. One should remember though, that the consequences and the related social costs of gender-based and domestic violence are far broader, and need not be caused by direct acts of physical violence. Gender-based and domestic violence can take the form of psychological pressure, limits on individual freedoms, or access to financial resources within households. As research in recent decades demonstrates, such forms of abuse also have significant consequences for the psychological well-being, social status, and professional development of its victims. All these outcomes are associated with not only high individual costs, but also with substantial social and economic costs to our societies.

This policy brief presents an outline of a survey conducted in eight countries aimed at better understanding the socio-economic context of gender-based violence. The survey, developed by the FREE Network of independent research institutes, has a regional focus on Central and Eastern Europe, with Sweden being an interesting benchmark country. The data was collected in September 2021 in Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Latvia, Poland, Russia, Sweden and Ukraine. The socio-economic situation of all these countries irrevocably changed with the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, the ongoing war, and its dramatic consequences. The world’s attention focused on the unspeakable violence committed by the Russian forces in Ukraine, the persecution in Belarus and Russia of their own citizens who were protesting against the invasion, and the challenges other neighbouring countries have faced as a result of an unprecedented wave of Ukrainian refugees. This change, on the one hand, calls for a certain distance with which we should judge the survey data and the derived results. On the other hand, the data may serve as a unique resource to support the analysis of the pre-war conditions in these countries with the aim to understand the background driving forces behind this dramatic crisis. In as much as the gender lens is necessary to comprehend the full scale of the consequences of both the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, it will be equally indispensable in the process of post-war development and reconciliation once peace is again restored.

Survey Design, Countries, and Samples

The survey was conducted in eight countries in September 2021 through as a telephone (CATI) survey using the list assisted random digit dialling (LA-RDD) method covering both cell phones and land-lines, and the sampling was carried out in such a way as to make the final sample representative of the respective populations by gender and three age group (18-39; 40-54; 55+). The collected samples varied from 925 to 1000 individuals. The same questionnaire initially prepared as a generic English version was fielded in all eight countries (in the respective national languages). The only deviations from the generic version were related to the education categories and to a set of final questions implemented in Latvia, Russia and Ukraine with a focus on the evaluation of national IPV legislation.

Table 1 presents some basic sample statistics, while Figure 1 shows the unweighted age and gender compositions in each country. The proportion of women in the sample varies between 49.4% in Sweden and 55.0% in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. The average sample age is between 43 (Armenia) and 51 (Sweden), while the proportion of individuals with higher education is between 29.3% in Belarus and 55.4% in Georgia. The highest proportion of respondents living in rural areas could be found in Armenia at 62.9%, while the lowest was in Georgia at 24.1%. Figure 1 illustrates good coverage across age groups for both men and women.

Table 1. FROGEE Survey: samples and basic demographics

Source: FROGEE Survey on Domestic and Gender-Based Violence.

Figure 1. FROGEE Survey: gender and age distributions

Source: FROGEE Survey on Domestic and Gender-Based Violence.

Socio-economic Conditions and Other Background Characteristics

To be able to examine the relationship between different aspects of domestic and gender-based violence to the socio-economic characteristics of the respondents, an extensive set of questions concerning the demographic composition of their household and their material conditions were asked at the beginning of the interview. These questions included information about partnership history and family structure, the size of the household and living conditions, education and labour market status (of the respondent and his/her partner) and general questions concerning material wellbeing. In Figure 2 we show a summary of two of the latter set of questions – the proportion of men and women who find it difficult or very difficult to make ends meet (Figure 2A) and the proportion who declared that the financial situation of their household deteriorated in the last two years, i.e. since September 2019, which can be used as an indicator of the material consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. We can see that the difficulties in making ends meet are by far lowest in Sweden, and slightly lower in the other EU countries (Latvia and Poland). The differences are less pronounced with regard to the implication of the pandemic, but also in this case respondents in Sweden seem to have been least affected.

 Figure 2. Making ends meet and the consequences of COVID-19

a. Difficulties in making ends meet


b. Material conditions deteriorated since 2019

Source: FROGEE Survey on Domestic and Gender-Based Violence.

Perceptions and Incidence of Domestic and Gender-Based Violence and Abuse

Frequency of differential treatment and abuse

The set of questions concerning domestic and gender-based violence started with an initial module related to the different treatment of men and women, with respondents asked to identify how often they witnessed certain behaviours aimed toward women. The questions covered aspects such as women being treated “with less courtesy than men”, being “called names or insulted for being a woman” and women being “the target of jokes of sexual nature” or receiving “unwanted sexual advances from a man she doesn’t know”, and the respondents were to evaluate if in the last year they have witnessed such behaviours on a scale from never, through rarely, sometimes, often, to very often. We present the proportion of respondents answering “often” or “very often” to two of these questions in Figure 3A (“People have acted as if they think women are not smart”) and 3B (“A woman has been the target of jokes of a sexual nature”). We find significant variation across these two dimensions of differential treatment, and we generally find that women are more sensitive to perceiving such treatment. It is interesting to note that the proportion of women who declared witnessing differential treatment in Sweden is very high in comparison to for example Latvia or Belarus, which, as we shall see below, does not correspond to the proportion of women (and men) witnessing more violent types of behaviour against women.

Figure 3. Frequency of differential treatment (often or very often)

a. People have acted as if they think women are not smart


b. A woman has been the target of jokes of a sexual nature

Source: FROGEE Survey on Domestic and Gender-Based Violence.

Questions on the frequency of witnessing physical abuse were also asked in relation to the scale of witnessed behaviour. Here respondents were once again asked to say how often “in their day-to-day life” they have witnessed specific behaviours. These included such types of abuse as: a woman being “threatened by a man”, “slapped, hit or punched by a man”, or “sexually abused or assaulted by a man”. The proportion of respondents who say that they have witnessed such behaviour with respect to two of the questions from this section are presented in Figure 4. In Figure 4A we show the proportion of men and women who have witnessed a woman being “slapped, hit or punched” (sometimes, often or very often), while in Figure 4B being “touched inappropriately without her consent”. Relative to the perceptions of differential treatment the incidence of a woman being hit or punched (4A) declared by the respondents seems more intuitive when considered against the overall international statistics of gender equality. The proportions are lowest in Sweden and Poland, and highest in Armenia and Ukraine. However, the perception of inappropriate touching by men with respect to women (Figure 4B) shows a similar extent of such actions across all analysed countries.

Figure 4. Frequency of abuse (sometimes, often or very often)

a. A woman has been slapped, hit or punched by a man


b. A woman has been touched inappropriately, without her consent, by a man

Source: FROGEE Survey on Domestic and Gender-Based Violence.

Perceptions of abuse

The questions concerning the scale of witnessed behaviours were complemented by a module related to the evaluation of certain behaviours from the perspective of their classification as abuse and the degree to which certain types of gender-specific behaviours are acceptable. Thus, for example respondents were asked if they consider “beating (one’s partner) causing severe physical harm” to be an example of abuse within a couple (Figure 5A) or if “prohibition to dress as one likes” represents abuse (Figure 5B). This module included an extensive list of behaviours, such as “forced abortion”, “constant humiliation, criticism”, “restriction of access to financial resources”, etc. As we can see in Figure 6, with respect to the clearest types of abuse – such as physical violence – respondents in all countries were pretty much unanimous in declaring such behaviour to represent abuse. With respect to other behaviours the variation in their evaluation across countries is much greater – for example, while nearly all men and women in Sweden consider prohibiting a partner to dress as he/she likes to be abusive (Figure 5B), only about 57% of women and 36% of men in Armenia share this view.

The questionnaire also included questions specifically focused on the perception of intimate partner violence. These asked respondents if they knew about women who in the last three months were “beaten, slapped or threatened physically by their intimate partner”, and the evaluation of how often intimate partners act physically violent towards their wives.

Figure 5. Perceptions of abuse: are these examples of abuse within a couple?

a. Beating causing severe physical harm


b. Prohibition to dress as one likes

Source: FROGEE Survey on Domestic and Gender-Based Violence.

A further evaluation of attitudes towards violent behaviour was done with respect to the relationship between a husband and wife and his right to hit or beat the wife in reaction to certain behaviours. In Figure 6 we show the distribution of responses regarding the justification for beating one’s wife in reaction to her neglect of the children (6A) or burning food (6B). The questions also covered such behaviour as arguing with her husband, going out without telling him, or refusing to have sex. As we can see in Figure 6, once again we find substantial country variation in the proportion of the samples – both men and women – who justify such violent behaviour within couples. This was particularly the case when respondents were asked about justification of violent behaviour in the case of a woman neglecting the children. In Armenia as many as 30% of men and 22% of women agree that physical beating is justified in those cases. These proportions are manyfold greater than what can be observed in countries such as Latvia, where 3% of men and women agreed that abuse was justifiable under these circumstances, or Sweden, where only 1% of men and women agreed.

Figure 6. Perceptions of abuse: is a husband justified in hitting or beating his wife

a. If she neglects the children


b. If she burns the food

Source: FROGEE Survey on Domestic and Gender-Based Violence.

Seeking help and the legal framework

The final part of the questionnaire focused on the evaluation of different reactions to incidents of domestic and gender-based violence. Respondents were first asked if a woman should seek help from various people and institutions if she is beaten by her partner – respondents were asked if she should seek help from the police, relatives or friends, a psychologist, a legal service or if, in such situations, she does not need help. In Figure 7 we show the proportion of people who agreed with the last statement, i.e. claimed that it is only the couple’s business. The proportions of respondents who declare such an attitude is higher among men than women within each country, and is highest among men in Armenia (48%) and Georgia (25%). Again, these proportions are in stark contrast to men in Sweden, or even Poland, where only 4% and 8% of men agreed, respectively. Nevertheless, looking at the total survey sample, a vast majority believe that a woman who is a victim of domestic violence should seek help outside of her home, indicating that at least some forms of institutionalised support for women are popular measures with most people.

Figure 7. Proportions agreeing that domestic violence is only the couple’s business

Source: FROGEE Survey on Domestic and Gender-Based Violence.

The interview also included questions on the need for specific legislation aimed at punishing intimate partner violence and on the existence of such legislation in the respondents’ countries. The latter questions were extended in three countries – Latvia, Russia and Ukraine – to evaluate the specific sets of regulations implemented recently in these countries and to facilitate an analysis of the role IPV legislation can play in reducing violence within households. Legislation on domestic violence is relatively recent. During the last four decades, though, changes accelerated in this respect around the world. Legislative measures have been introduced in many countries, covering different aspects of preventing, protecting against and prosecuting various forms of violence and abuse that might happen within the marriage or the family. Research strives to offer evaluations on what legal provisions are most effective, in a setting in which statistics and information are still far from perfect, and as a consequence of the dearth of strong evidence the public debate on the matter is often lively. For legislation to have an effect on behaviour through shaping the cost of committing a crime, on the one hand, and the benefit of reporting it or seeking help, on the other, or more indirectly through changing norms in society, information and awareness are key. For how can deterrence be achieved if people do not know what the sanctions are? And how can reporting be encouraged if victims do not know their rights? The evidence on legislation awareness is unfortunately quite scarce. A survey of the criminology field (Nagin, 2013) concludes that this is a major knowledge gap.

Figure 8 shows the proportions of answers to questions concerning the need for and existence of legislation specifically targeted towards intimate partner violence. We can see that while support for such legislation is quite high (Figure 8A), it is generally lower among men (in particular in Armenia, Russia and Belarus). Awareness of existence of such laws, on the other hand, is much lower, and it is particularly low among women. It should be pointed out that all countries have in fact implemented provisions against domestic violence in their criminal code, but only around half of the population, sometimes much fewer, are aware of that.

Figure 8. Need for and awareness of IPV legislation

a. State should have specific legislation aimed at punishing IPV


b. Country has specific legislation aimed at punishing intimate partner violence

Source: FROGEE Survey on Domestic and Gender-Based Violence.

Recent reforms of DV legislation that were implemented in Russia in 2017, in Ukraine in 2019 and in Latvia just a few months ago (at the time of the survey, the changes were at the stage of a proposal) were the subject of the final survey questions in these countries. We find that awareness of these recent reforms is very low in all three countries, and knowledge about the reform content (gauged with the help of a multiple-choice question with three alternative statements) is even lower. Our analysis suggests that gender and family situation are the two factors that most robustly predict support for legislation, while education and age are associated with awareness and knowledge of the reforms. Minority Russian speakers are less aware of the reforms in both Ukraine and Latvia, in Ukraine are also less likely to answer correctly about the content of the reform, and in Latvia are less supportive of DV legislation in general.

Analyses of this type are useful for policy design, to better understand which groups lack relevant knowledge and should be targeted by, for example, information campaigns to combat DV, such as those many governments around the world implemented during the covid-19 pandemic.

Future Work Based on the Survey

The above is just a small sample of the rich source of information that has resulted from conducting the survey. Already from this simple overview we can see some interesting results. There are, for example, clear differences between men and women in perceptions of how common certain types of abusive behaviour are. However, for many questions differences between countries are larger than those between men and women within a country. Interestingly such differences are also different depending on the severity of the abuse or violence. In Sweden the perception of women being victims of less violent abuse is higher than in some other countries where instead some more violent types of abuse are reported as being more common. This could, of course, be due to actual differences in actual events but it is also possible that there are differences in what types of behaviour are considered to represent harassment and abuse in different societies. More careful data work is needed to try to answer questions like this and many others. Currently there are a number of ongoing research projects based on the survey results, three of which will be presented at the FREE-network conference on “Economic and Social Context of Domestic Violence” in Stockholm on May 11, 2022. Our hope is that this work will help in taking actions to prevent gender-based abuse and domestic violence based on a better understanding of underlying cross-country differences in social norms and attitudes and their relation to socio-economic factors.

About FROGEE Policy Briefs

FROGEE Policy Briefs is a special series aimed at providing overviews and the popularization of economic research related to gender equality issues. Debates around policies related to gender equality are often highly politicized. We believe that using arguments derived from the most up to date research-based knowledge would help us build a more fruitful discussion of policy proposals and in the end achieve better outcomes.

The aim of the briefs is to improve the understanding of research-based arguments and their implications, by covering the key theories and the most important findings in areas of special interest to the current debate. The briefs start with short general overviews of a given theme, which are followed by a presentation of country-specific contexts, specific policy challenges, implemented reforms and a discussion of other policy options.

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.

Social Norms, Conspiracy Theories and Vaccine Scepticism: A Snapshot from the First Year of the Covid-19 Pandemic in Poland

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In January 2022, Poland experienced the highest rate of SARS-CoV-2 transmission since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Considering the widespread consensus among experts about the efficacy of vaccines in preventing hospitalisation and death resulting from the virus, low vaccination rates and widespread anti-vaccine sentiments in Poland are of great concern. We use data from the DIAGNOZA+ Survey to demonstrate the relationship between various demographic characteristics, opinions around certain gender norms, the propensity for conspiratorial thinking, concern about the pandemic, and vaccine scepticism. While controlling for exogenous demographic characteristics, we measure the strength of the relationship between various beliefs that people hold and how they feel about the COVID-19 vaccine. Our analysis indicates that while respondents who hold more traditional views on gender roles are 6 percentage points less likely to get vaccinated, those who agree with a variety of conspiratorial statements are 43 percentage points less likely to vaccinate against COVID-19.

Introduction

As of January 2022, Europe finds itself well into the 4th wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, with some countries, including Poland, experiencing the highest rates of transmission since the virus was first detected. There are a few tools available to policymakers and healthcare professionals for combating the spread of the virus, ranging from preventative measures to strict social lockdowns aimed at reducing interpersonal interaction. A comprehensive literature review of 72 academic studies conducted by the BMJ found that the implementation of preventative measures such as hand washing, mask wearing, and social distancing decreased the risk of transmission by 53% (Talic et al., 2021). But even though such measures reduce transmission, the shortcomings in adherence and enforcement make high vaccination rates much more effective in diminishing the risk of hospitalization and death (Moline et al., 2021). With a consensus among experts reaffirming the effectiveness of vaccines in minimising the more severe cases of COVID-19 illness,  the widespread availability of the vaccine has become the most effective and cost-efficient tool in limiting morbidity while avoiding future instances of economically unsustainable lockdowns. The drawbacks of the alternative scenario have already been made evident in 2020, before the development and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. Over the course of the year, hospital capacities were overwhelmed in many countries around the world, leading to significant spikes in excess deaths. Poland saw an increase of over 18% in all-cause mortality in 2020 (OECD, 2021), the fourth-highest in the OECD and second-highest in the European Union (Eurostat, 2021).

Considering the central role that prevalent vaccination plays in combating the impact of COVID-19, it is important to understand the underlying factors and demographic characteristics of individuals who are driving the low vaccination rates in countries such as Poland. With this in mind, we use an online survey: DIAGNOZA+ (DIAGNOZA Plus, 2020-2021), conducted on a representative sample of adults in Poland throughout the pandemic, allowing for the identification of characteristics that are most strongly correlated with vaccine scepticism. This kind of analysis can provide useful indicators for the targeting of certain policies and information campaigns that encourage vaccinations, and thereby suppress future outbreaks of SARS-CoV-2, as well as any other future pandemics. Below, we first outline the key features of the DIAGNOZA+ data, describe the methodology adopted in this study, and present results on the relationship between key demographic characteristics, social norms, views of respondents, and attitudes towards COVID-19 vaccination. We show a strong correlation between traditional family values, conspiratorial views, and reservations relating to the vaccination programme. Having traditional family values (expressed by about 40% of the sample) is associated with an over 10 percentage point (p.p.) lower probability to declare a willingness to get vaccinated. This drops to about 6 p.p. when we extend the model to account for conspiratorial thinking, which strongly dominates the relationship. Individuals who express strong conspiratorial and anti-establishment views (about a quarter of the sample), conditional on other demographic characteristics, were more than 40 p.p. less likely to declare a willingness to get vaccinated.

Methodology

The following analysis is based on data from DIAGNOZA+, an online survey collected in seven waves over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic (DIAGNOZA Plus, 2020-2021). The panel survey was conducted with the purpose of assessing changes in the labour market situation of adults in Poland between April 2020 and July 2021. The survey consistently included standard questions on individual and household characteristics such as age, gender and education, as well as questions on as well as questions about the respondent’s labor market status, hours worked, and financial situation. Waves 3 and 4 included additional modules where respondents were asked to express their opinions on a variety of statements surrounding gender norms such as “In general, fathers are as well suited to look after their children as mothers”, “A pre-school child is likely to suffer if his or her mother works” and “When jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women”. The questions were answered on a scale of 1 (strongly agree) to 4 (strongly disagree). For the analysis, these categorical variables are dichotomised, with a value of 1 assigned to responses 1 and 2 (strongly agree or agree) and a value of 0 assigned to responses 3 and 4 (disagree or strongly disagree). Thus, for each question, we develop a binary variable that categorises respondents as either having a progressive or traditional reaction to each particular gender norms statement.

In consecutive waves, the same respondents were asked questions surrounding their willingness to vaccinate against the virus (in wave 5) and their trust in experts and the government response to the COVID-19 pandemic (in wave 6). For this analysis, we select questions that may influence an individual’s likelihood to vaccinate, starting with their level of concern about the pandemic or their fear of the virus itself. Furthermore, we identify individuals with a high predisposition for conspiratorial beliefs based on information from wave 6. Each variable included in this module is converted into a binary measure of agreement or disagreement, as outlined above for the social norms questions. We consider seven statements from the survey related to conspiratorial views, including “Secret organisations influence political decisions” or “I trust my intuition more than the so-called experts” (see the full list of statements in Figure 2). For each of them, the variable is converted into a binary measure of agreement or disagreement, similarly to the social norms questions above. Those who agreed or strongly agreed with all seven statements are classified as having conspiratorial views.

Due to sample attrition and after dropping respondents who did not answer one (or more) of the questions needed for our analysis, the sample reduces to 726 individuals (see table A1 in the Annex). Although each wave of the DIAGNOZA+ survey is carefully weighted to ensure population representativeness of the survey, these cross-sectional weights are only relevant to each independent wave of the survey. Therefore, for our sample, we develop frequency weights by sex and age using population data from Statistics Poland (Statistics Poland, 2021), which are utilised throughout the analysis. Given the low number of participants in the oldest age groups (those above 60 years old), we limit the sample to individuals aged between 21 and 60. Unfortunately, calibrating the weights according to additional characteristics such as education and municipal population is not feasible with a sample of this size. Clearly, the requirement of consistent consecutive participation in at least three waves of the survey has implications for its representativeness. For example, after the sample of respondents that participated in wave 6 is cut to include only those who also participated in waves 3, 4 and 5, we observe a bias in favour of conspiratorial views among the remaining observations, indicating that individuals who hold these views were more likely to continue their participation in the survey. For example, while 18.1% of the total cross-sectional sample of individuals in wave 6 hold conspiratorial views, the proportion is 23.4% in the sample we analyse (falling slightly to 23.2% when weights are applied). From this perspective, while indicative of existing correlations, the results ought to be treated with some caution.

Limiting the sample to respondents who answered all sets of questions across several rounds of the survey allows us to study vaccine scepticism and respondents’ susceptibility to conspiracy theories in relation to a number of personal characteristics. Furthermore, we consider the relationship between a respondent’s attitudes towards certain social norms (asked in waves 3 and 4), their individual response to COVID-19 (asked in wave 5), and their trust in the government’s response to the pandemic (asked in wave 6). We begin the analysis by assessing the relationship between respondents’ demographic characteristics and their opinions on gender roles, their propensity to hold conspiratorial beliefs, and their concern about the pandemic. This is followed by two models measuring respondents’ willingness to vaccinate. In the first of these models, demographic characteristics and traditional family values are used as explanatory variables, while in the second model conspiratorial views are included as well. Finally, we conclude with a summary of results and policy considerations.

Survey Results

Traditional Family Values in Poland

The respondents of the DIAGNOZA+ survey vary, on average, in the ‘traditionality’ of their attitudes towards gender and family depending on the selected indicator. The shares of answers to the three questions about gender norms are presented in Figure 1. The results demonstrate that progressive views on gender norms in Poland were more common in relation to the workplace than the home and family. For example, the statement to which most respondents were opposed was “When jobs are scarce, men have more right to a job than women”, with 37.2% of respondents disagreeing and 50.3% of respondents strongly disagreeing. On the other hand, slightly fewer respondents disagreed (50.5%) or strongly disagreed (34.8%) with “In general, fathers are not as well suited to look after their children as mothers”. Finally, respondents were most ‘traditional’ in their views in reaction to the statement “A pre-school child is likely to suffer if his or her mother works”, with 28% agreeing and 10% strongly agreeing. There is a natural correlation between these different views, and in our analysis, we examine the significance of different combinations of the three indicators. Given the relatively small sample, only the last indicator proved to be significantly related to our main outcome of interest and we use this one to represent the view on the ‘progressive-traditional’ spectrum

 Figure 1. Gender norms in the survey sample

Source: DIAGNOZA+ survey, waves 3 and 4. Note: Data weighted using weights generated from Statistics Poland’s data on population by sex and age. Sample limited to individuals aged 21-60. The statement “In general, fathers are as well suited to look after their children as mothers” from the questionnaire was adjusted in the graph for better readability.

Conspiratorial Views

In wave 6 of the DIAGNOZA+ survey respondents were asked seven different questions relating to trust in government, politicians, media, and the recommendations of experts. As shown in Figure 2, for five out of the seven statements, a majority of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the government or media are dishonest, intentionally share misinformation, or have ulterior motives. Nearly three quarters of respondents agreed that “politicians and the media deliberately hide certain information”. This result supports data published by the OECD in 2020 showing that, out of the 38 member countries, Poland had the second-lowest trust in government, with only 27.3% of the population expressing confidence (OECD, 2022). However, the DIAGNOZA+ survey goes further to find that nearly half of respondents in our sample reported that they trust their own intuitions more than the experts during the pandemic, while the least widespread belief out of the seven was that “secret organisations influence political decisions”. Still, even this statement, which suggests deep-seeded nefarious behaviour behind the scenes of government, found 39.8% of respondents to be in agreement. Note that we aim to identify individuals who have a general propensity for conspiratorial thinking, rather than those who simply find some of the statements particularly compelling. To this end, we only categorise those respondents who agreed with all seven statements as having a high propensity for conspiratorial thinking, which was the case for 23.2% of our sample after reweighting.

Figure 2. Conspiratorial beliefs and trust in authority

Source: DIAGNOZA+ survey, wave 6. Note: Data weighted using weights generated from Statistics Poland’s data on population by sex and age. Sample limited to individuals aged 21-60.

Analysis

Table 1 presents regression results on the relationship between specific beliefs reported in the different waves of the survey and a number of individual characteristics. We show these results for three dependent variables: traditional family values, as defined by the opinion that a pre-school child is likely to suffer if his or her mother works; propensity for conspiratorial views, which identifies the respondents that agreed with all seven statements presented in Figure 2; and concern about the pandemic, a binary variable that identifies individuals who expressed great worry or fear about the pandemic. The results indicate that parents who live with their children are 10.1 p.p. more likely to hold traditional family values. After controlling for age, gender and education, living in a small town or village is associated with a 10.9 p.p higher probability of ascribing to more traditional gender norms, while individuals holding a tertiary degree are 18 p.p. less likely to agree that “a pre-school child is likely to suffer if his or her mother works” compared to those with primary education. Interestingly, neither age nor gender significantly correlates with family values, suggesting that the DIAGNOZA+ survey did not capture an intergenerational or gender-driven divide on these issues. This might relate to the online nature of the survey and the implied sample selection, in particular among older individuals.

 Table 1. Regression results on views and attitudes

Standard errors in parentheses. * p < 0.1, ** p < 0.05, *** p < 0.01. Note: Data weighted using weights generated from Statistics Poland’s data on population by sex and age. Sample limited to individuals aged 21-60. Estimates using the linear probability model.

The results presented in Table 1 also demonstrate a relationship between some demographic characteristics and the likelihood to hold conspiratorial views (as defined by expressing agreement to the seven related statements in wave 6). A number of characteristics strongly correlate with conspiratorial thinking: being a parent living with their children aged 0-17, and living in small cities, towns and villages. Each of these characteristics is associated with a higher probability of believing in secret organisations and mistrusting experts. A number of characteristics strongly correlate with conspiratorial thinking: holding such views are 9.3 p.p. more likely among parents living with their underaged children and 10 p.p. more likely among individuals living in smaller towns or villages compared to those living in cities of over 500 thousand inhabitants. Higher education is strongly negatively correlated with the likelihood of holding conspiratorial views – those with tertiary education are 14.5 p.p. less likely to have these views compared to individuals with primary education.

One simple explanation for the increased vaccination rates among certain demographic groups in Poland could be that some segments of the population are more worried about the virus, and thus choose to take greater precautions. The analysis presented in Table 1 demonstrates that people were increasingly likely to be concerned about the pandemic in higher age groups. When asked “To what extent are you concerned about the COVID-19 pandemic?”, the probability of expressing serious concern increases progressively with age. This is an intuitive result considering the strong relationship between age and the severity of COVID-19 symptoms and the associated risk of mortality (CDC, 2021).  Respondents aged between 31 and 40 were 10 p.p. more likely to report being very concerned or frightened than respondents between the age of 21 and 30, while in the age groups 41-50 (12.6 p.p.) and 51-60 (21.4 p.p.) the probability was even higher. There is also a weak but positive correlation (7.7 and 8.6 p.p.) between living in a city with a population of 10,000 to 500,000 inhabitants and expressing fear about the pandemic, as compared to respondents who lived in cities with a population of more than 500,000 people. The relationships between the remaining demographic characteristics and the probability of being seriously concerned about the pandemic are not statistically significant. Below, we use this data to examine the link between people’s beliefs and the likelihood of getting vaccinated.

Vaccine Scepticism, Demographic Characteristics and Conspiratorial Views

In light of the widespread scientific consensus on the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines, low vaccination rates in Poland are difficult to explain. In this section, we analyse to which extent they may be driven by the underlying beliefs, on top of the socio-demographic characteristics. Overall, 54% of respondents in the selected sample from the DIAGNOZA+ survey planned to be or had already been vaccinated. Thus, the survey sample closely reflects the actual proportion of the population that was fully vaccinated in Poland as of January 2022. (ECDC, 2022). In Model A of Table 2, we present the relationship between the response to the question “Do you plan to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or are you already vaccinated?” and traditional family values, alongside the usual demographic characteristics. We find that those in the 51-60 age group were 14.5 p.p. more likely to plan to vaccinate than those aged between 21 and 30. This also reflects the higher level of concern about the virus expressed by those over the age of 50, as presented in Table 1, and the risk of serious illness associated with increasing age. However, the relationship between age and the probability of vaccination was much weaker than the relationship between age and the probability of expressing general concern about the pandemic, implying that concern does not translate directly into a willingness to vaccinate. We also find that tertiary education has a particularly strong effect, and respondents who have a university degree were much more likely (17.7 p.p.) to get vaccinated than those with less than secondary education.

Through this analysis we also discover several less intuitive relationships between individual characteristics and the propensity to vaccinate. We find that women are 11.5 p.p. less likely to plan to vaccinate against COVID-19 than men. Moreover, individuals living in a city with less than 500,000 inhabitants were much less likely to vaccinate, with the strongest correlation (-23.5 p.p.) observed for respondents living in medium-sized cities of 100,000 to 500,000 people. However, a strong relationship can also be seen for smaller cities of 10,000 to 100,000 inhabitants (-19.3 p.p.) and small towns and villages (-17.2 p.p.). Respondents’ expressions of traditional family values are also a strong predictor of their propensity to vaccinate. After controlling for gender, age, education and municipality size, those categorised as holding traditional views are 10.6 p.p. less likely to plan to vaccinate against COVID-19. Our findings demonstrate that while population density, education, age and gender, are all strong indicators of vaccine scepticism in Poland, so is the degree of traditionalism in people’s beliefs.

Table 2. Regression results on vaccination: probability of being vaccinated or planning to get vaccinated

Standard errors in parentheses. * p < 0.1, ** p < 0.05, *** p < 0.01. Note: Data weighted using weights generated from Statistics Poland’s data on population by sex and age. Sample limited to individuals aged 21-60. Estimates using the linear probability model.

A commonly cited explanatory factor for vaccine scepticism is the susceptibility to conspiratorial beliefs, as well as scepticism towards information disseminated by figures of authority (Hornsey et al., 2018). Thus, in Model B, we seek to identify a relationship between conspiratorial beliefs and scepticism towards the COVID-19 vaccine in Poland. When adding to our model a binary indicator for agreement with all seven of the conspiratorial statements included in the survey, we find that those who agreed across the board were 43.3 p.p. less likely to get vaccinated. Therefore, it seems that the propensity for conspiratorial thinking is a very strong correlate of willingness to vaccinate, and the characteristic most strongly associated with vaccine scepticism. The impact of the demographic factors goes in the same direction for both models, although the scale diminishes in Model B after controlling for conspiratorial views, reflecting the higher propensity of older individuals to hold such views. Furthermore, the effect of traditional family values is much weaker in Model B, suggesting a positive correlation between traditional family values and conspiratorial beliefs (Figure A1 in the Annex shows how values and views in the analysis views overlap with each other). This is in line with past research that ties traditional moral values and conservatism with conspiratorial beliefs, both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic (Pennycook et al., 2020; Romer and Jamieson, 2021).

One explanation for the strong relationship between conspiratorial beliefs and vaccine scepticism could be that respondents who do not trust the media and figures of authority believe that the dangers of the pandemic have been exaggerated and would thus not be concerned about its consequences. We account for this possibility in Model C by including the indicator for fear of the pandemic. We find that those who are very concerned or frightened are 21.1 p.p. more likely to vaccinate than those who are not. However, including this variable in the model has little effect on the estimates of the relationship between traditional gender views or conspiratorial thinking and the likelihood to vaccinate. Further research is needed to understand what is driving these relationships in this particular context. These findings demonstrate that while individuals that believe in conspiracies are the most susceptible to vaccine scepticism, other elements such as fear of the pandemic, education attainment, and where people live play an important role as well.

Conclusion

By January 2022 most European countries have reached a plateau in their vaccination rates, with free vaccines readily available since the summer months of 2021 to all those who are willing to take them. Not only have the high rates of hospital admissions among the non-vaccinated population proven the epidemiological models about the efficacy of vaccines in reducing hospitalisation and death to be true (a study in the United States showed a more than tenfold reduction in the risk of each measure; Scobie et al., 2021), but disparities between countries in the proportion of the population that is vaccinated have created a natural experiment that further substantiates this hypothesis. Poland, a country with a vaccination rate that is 15 p.p. lower than neighbouring Germany, had virtually the same number of cases per 100,000 people in the first two weeks of December, but almost threefold the number of deaths from COVID-19 (ECDC, 2021). Due to the burden COVID-19 related hospitalisations place on healthcare systems, the issues arising from the significant scale of vaccine scepticism are not only related to physical well-being, but also directly impact economic and fiscal stability.

Despite a fairly small sample size available for our analysis from the DIAGNOZA+ survey, a number of important correlations are identified in this study. We find that people living in cities and towns smaller than 500,000 people are less likely to vaccinate than those living in big cities. We show that women, those with less than secondary education, and young people are less likely to be vaccinated. Moreover, those believing that pre-school-aged children suffer when their mothers work are less likely to vaccinate compared to those with more progressive gender views. The most significant predictor of vaccine scepticism, however, is whether a respondent expressed low trust in authority and belief in the conspiracy theories presented in the survey, which was the case for 23.2% of the sample. These individuals are more than 40 p.p. less likely to express willingness to get vaccinated than the rest of the population. This suggests that the low rate of vaccination in Poland can, in part, be attributed to widespread distrust of government, the media, and scientific experts. Poland has already suffered the consequences of the high magnitude of anti-vaccine sentiments in the population, with the severity of the fourth wave of COVID-19 being one of the harshest in Europe (ECDC, 2021). If the government intends to prevent future outbreaks and protect the healthcare system and the economy, it must present a consistent, clear, and transparent message about the safety and efficiency of vaccines to minimise the misinformation that is driving vaccine scepticism among certain demographic groups.

References

Annex is available in the PDF version.

Disclaimer

This Policy Paper was prepared under the FROGEE project, with financial support from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida). FROGEE papers contribute to the discussion of inequalities in Central and Eastern Europe.  For more information, please visit www.freepolicybriefs.com. The views presented in the Policy Paper reflect the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily overlap with the position of the FREE Network or Sida.

Ukrainian Refugees in Poland: Current Situation and What to Expect

20220317 Ukrainian Refugees in Poland Image 03

The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine has forced millions to flee from the war zone. This brief addresses Ukrainian refuge in Poland. It provides an overview of the current situation, discusses the ongoing solutions and potential future challenges, and stresses the key areas for urgent policy intervention. It is based on a presentation held at the FREE Network webinar Fleeing the war zone: Will open hearts be enough?, which took place on March 14, 2022. The full webinar can be seen here.

The latest data (from March 15, 2022) shows that since February 24, 1.8 million refugees have already crossed the Polish-Ukrainian border. This number represents over 60 percent of Ukrainians who have fled the country thus far. Among this group that relocated to Poland, approximately 97 percent were people with Ukrainian citizenship. Most of the foreign nationals living in Ukraine before the war, and who came to Poland after its outbreak, have already returned to their countries of origin.

Figure 1. The influx of refugees from Ukraine to Poland since February 24, 2022.

Note: The vertical axis shows the number of refugees per million. Source: Data from Polish Border Guard

Our estimates show that there are currently about 1.1 million Ukrainian war refugees in Poland. Many stay in large cities such as Warsaw, Kraków or Wrocław. The rest of those who crossed the Polish border transited to the other EU Member States or countries outside of Europe, such as Canada or the USA, reuniting with their families and friends.

In the first days after the outbreak of the war, refugee assistance in Poland was mostly provided by Polish families and households, as well as owners of guesthouses and hotels who made them available for the purpose of providing accommodation.

A similar situation took place at the border and at railway and bus stations where refugees were arriving, with a majority of support coming from volunteering citizens. This assistance largely consisted of the provision of basic necessities such as food, hygiene products, and medical or psychological first aid. The level of mobilization among non-governmental organizations, grass-roots initiatives, private citizens, and civil society, in general, is extremely commendable and should be accredited with providing the safe welcome refugees received upon arrival. For example, during the first days, Polish families sheltered several hundred thousand refugees, often in their own houses or apartments. There are currently two main Ukrainian social groups arriving in Poland: women with children and older persons over the age of 60. This is a result of Ukraine’s internal regulations, which prohibit men aged between 18 and 60 from leaving the country.

Among those who have managed to escape the war, there is a large group of people requiring very specialized support, e.g. children suffering from oncological diseases, and elderly with a high degree of disability. So far, these groups have been provided with the necessary support, but if these needs become more frequent, a review of the capacity of the Polish healthcare system and the system of support for the disabled will be needed.

In the first days after the war broke out, the situation at the border was very difficult. The waiting time for crossing reached up to 70 hours. However, this was related to problems with the information system and the limited number of border guards on the Ukrainian side. Currently, crossing the border is quick and seamless. Every day the Polish Border Police register 80 to 100 thousand individuals, a vast majority of them crossing into Poland. This is a many-fold increase compared to pre-war migration flows, which fluctuated around 12-15 thousand people per day. At the same time, over 80.000 people, mainly men, have crossed the Polish border to Ukraine in the last 20 days with the goal of joining the army or territorial defense.

For a long time, the Polish government held the position that there would be no need to build refugee centers. However, the government recently reversed this decision and decided to open a dozen centers, located in market and sports halls. Currently, over 100,000 people are staying in these types of temporary accommodation facilities. However, these centers are not sufficiently adapted for stays longer than a few days. It is necessary to prepare housing infrastructure (temporary accommodation centers equipped with habitable containers) in which refugees can stay for two or three months until they find another place to live.

So far, Poland has essentially dealt with two of three possible migratory waves. In the first, people with family members or friends living in Poland or in other EU Member States arrived. Before the war, there were already approximately 800 thousand Ukrainians working or studying in Poland. In the second wave, after the bombing of civilian facilities in large cities, people without family or friends living in Poland started arriving. They require full assistance. A third wave is possible, and this one may be much larger than the previous two. It may occur if the situation at the front worsens and the repressions by Russian troops become harsher. Such reports are already coming from eastern Ukraine. If the situation worsens, Poland could even face a couple of additional million people that would leave Ukraine. Under these circumstances, we should assume that the third wave would include young men in addition to women, children, and the elderly. This scenario is currently very unlikely, but cannot be completely ruled out.

Since the beginning of March, Poland has seen an increase in the activity of both local representatives of the government administration and the central government. Information has been gathered about vacancies in smaller cities and local communities where refugees could be accommodated. This is because large cities are on the verge of reaching their capacity for the number of refugees they are able to manage. In addition, a special law entered into force on March 13, which provides for a catalogue of support tools for refugees. The main issues are:

1. The possibility of obtaining an individual identification number, which will enable the opening of a bank account and grant access to the labor market, education, and social benefits. It will be possible to apply for the ID number from March 16. Certainly, large queues can be expected in the first days, as the procedure is complicated and rather bureaucratic. The government decided to require all the necessary information at the start of the application process, which could be complicated for some applicants and lead to additional delays. Based on recent numbers, up to 1 million Ukrainians may apply for an individual identification number in the near future.

2. Reimbursement of the costs of hosting refugees from Ukraine in Polish family homes and in private hotels. The government has agreed to cover the value of around 8 euros per day for each person. However, receiving this refund requires submitting a special application to the local administration offices, which may again cause various kinds of perturbations, and even resignation from obtaining such support.

3. Ukrainian children can be enrolled in Polish schools. It will also be possible to open school branches in temporary accommodation centers, as well as parallel Ukrainian classes inside Polish schools. At present, however, the preferred model is the inclusion of Ukrainian children in Polish classrooms. Currently, no major problems have been reported with this process, but only around 10% of Ukrainian children have entered Polish schools so far. Numerous challenges connected with this integration process are expected. Part of the solution could be distance learning or hybrid learning. The priority is to involve children in education as fast as possible so that they do not lose time while living in Poland from an educational development point of view.

4. A simplified system of qualifications recognition has been implemented for nurses and doctors. Unfortunately, contrary to the advice of experts, the act does not provide guidelines for a simplified qualification recognition of teachers, educators or psychologists from Ukraine. In his media statements, the Minister of Education and Science did not rule out introducing a simplified procedure in the near future. Such recognition could, to some extent, solve the problem of understaffing in Polish schools.

5. All adults from Ukraine who arrived after February 24 have open access to the labor market.

Until early March, the Polish government did not apply for support from other EU member states. Now, this position has changed. Over the first weekend of March alone, more than 20 trains were organized that made it possible for refugees interested in moving from Poland to countries such as Germany or other destinations within the EU. Additional relocation measures are expected in the near future. However, in contrast to the European migrant crisis in 2015, the relocation scheme of Ukrainian refugees is carried out on a voluntary, rather than a compulsory basis.

It is very difficult to predict what will happen in the next days or weeks. While it should be emphasized that Poland is managing the migration challenge well, this is not least due to the exceptional commitment of civil society. Certainly, in the coming months, Poland will not be able to cope with the integration of more than 800.000 people into the labor market and education system. Of course, it is possible to provide ad-hoc support, but that is completely different than integrating refugees into Polish society. Ukrainians are still treated as guests who are expected to return to their homes when possible. Such an assumption should not be changed until May when the situation in Ukraine will be more predictable. We must also be aware that we are dealing with dispersed families who will want to reunite as soon as possible. It is not known, however, whether this will take place in Poland or in Ukraine. It depends on how the situation develops in the weeks and months to come.

In the coming weeks, the key issue will be the relocation of Ukrainian refugees from large to smaller cities within not only Poland but also the European Union. It is absolutely necessary to coordinate activities both at the level of the Polish government and the European Commission. As far as the Polish government is concerned, a task force should be established to maintain constant contact with the European Commission and the EU Member States regarding the ability to relocate refugees from Poland to other countries. This team should be composed mainly of civil servants from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of the Interior. It is also necessary to appoint a team coordinating the actions of voivodes, who are responsible for crisis management in accordance with Polish law. It is also critical to ensure the flow of information between local administrations and the government, as well as to coordinate the activities of non-governmental organizations, whose activity is key in dealing with the challenges related to the migration crisis. In the next stages, it will be necessary to adopt a systemic approach to the inclusion of Ukrainian children in the education system (Polish and Ukrainian, but functioning in Poland – remote learning), and adult refugees to the labor market.

In the end, I would like to recall my opinion, which is now popular in the media and among representatives of the central government, local governments and non-governmental organizations: “Helping refugees and managing migration crises is a marathon, not a sprint.” We must keep this in mind.

The webinar “Fleeing the war zone: Will open hearts be enough?”, was hosted by the FREE Network together with the Stockholm Institute of Transition Economics (SITE) and can be seen here.

Vaccination Progress and the Opening Up of Economies

20210622 Reopening Soon Webinar Image 01

In this brief, we report on the FREE network webinar on the state of vaccinations and the challenges ahead for opening up economies while containing the pandemic, held on June 22, 2021. The current state of the pandemic in each respective country was presented, suggesting that infection rates have gone down quite substantially recently in all countries of the network, except in Russia which is currently facing a surge in infections driven by the delta-version of the virus. Vaccination progress is very uneven, limited by lacking access to vaccines (primarily Ukraine and Georgia) and vaccine scepticism among the population (primarily in Russia and Belarus but for certain groups also in Latvia, Poland and to some extent Sweden). This also creates challenges for governments eager to open their societies to benefit their economies and ease the social consequences of the restrictions on mobility and social gatherings. Finally, the medium to long term consequences for labour markets reveal challenges but also potential opportunities through wider availability of workfrom-home policies. 

Background

In many countries in Europe, citizens and governments are starting to see an end to the most intense impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on their societies. Infection and death rates are coming down and governments are starting to put in place policies for a gradual opening up of societies, as reflected in the Covid-19 stringency index developed by Oxford University. These developments are partially seasonal, but also largely a function of the progress of vaccination programs reaching an increasing share of the adult population. These developments, though, are taking place to different degrees and at different pace across countries.  This is very evident at a global level, but also within Europe and among the countries represented in the FREE network. This has implications for the development within Europe as a whole, but also for the persistent inequalities we see across countries.   

Short overview of the current situation

The current epidemiological situation in Latvia, Sweden, Ukraine, and Georgia looks pretty similar in terms of Covid-19 cases and deaths but when it comes to the vaccination status there is substantial variation.

Latvia experienced a somewhat weaker third wave in the spring of 2021 after being hit badly in the second wave during the fall and winter of 2020 (see Figure 1). The Latvian government started vaccinating at the beginning of 2021, and by early June, 26% of the Latvian population had been fully vaccinated.

Sweden, that chose a somewhat controversial strategy to the pandemic built on individual responsibility, had reached almost 15 thousand Covid-19 deaths by the end of June of 2021, the second highest among the FREE network member countries relative to population size. The spread of the pandemic has slowed down substantially, though, during the early summer, and the percentage of fully vaccinated is about to reach 30% of the population.

Figure 1. Cumulative Covid-19 deaths 

Source: Aggregated data sources from the COVID-19 Data Repository by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University, compiled by Our World in Data.

Following a severe second wave, the number of infected in Ukraine started to go down in the winter of 2020, with the total deaths settling at about 27 thousand in the month of February. Then the third wave hit in the spring, but the number of new daily cases has decreased again and is currently three times lower than at the beginning of the lastwave. However, a large part of the reduction is likely not thanks to successful epidemiological policies but rather due to low detection rates and seasonal variation

In June 2021, Georgia faces a similar situation as Ukraine and Latvia, with the number of cumulative Covid-19 deaths per million inhabitants reaching around 1300 (in total 2500 people) following a rather detrimental spring 2021 wave. At the moment, both Georgia and Ukraine have very low vaccination coverage relative to other countries in the region(see Figure 5).

In contrast to the above countries, Russia started vaccinating early. Unfortunately, the country is now experiencing an increase in the number of cases (as can be seen in Figure 2), contrary to most other countries in the region. This negative development is likely due to the fact that the new Covid-19 delta variant is spreading in the country, particularly in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Despite the early start to vaccinations, though, the total number of vaccinated people remains low, only reaching 10.5% of the population.

Figure 2. New Covid-19 cases

Source: Aggregated data sources from the COVID-19 Data Repository by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University, compiled by Our World in Data.

In some ways similar to Sweden, the government of Belarus did not impose any formal restrictions on individuals’ mobility. According to the official statistics, in the month of June, the rise in the cumulative number of covid-19 deaths and new daily infections has declined rapidly and reached about 400 deceased and 800 infections per one million inhabitants, respectively. Vaccination goes slowly, and by now, around 8% of the population has gotten the first dose and 5% have received the second.

There were two major waves in Poland during the autumn 2020 and spring 2021. In the latter period, the country experienced a vast number of deaths.  As can be seen in Figure 3, the excess mortality P-score – the percentage difference between the weekly number of deaths in 2020-2021 and the average number of deaths over the years 2015-2019 – peaked in November 2020, reaching approximately 115%. The excess deaths numbers in Poland were also the highest among the FREE Network countries in the Spring of 2021, culminating at about 70% higher compared to the baseline. By mid-June, the number of deaths and cases have steeply declined and 36% of the country’s population is fully vaccinated.

Figure 3. Excess deaths

Turning to the economy, after a devastating year, almost all countries are expected to bounce back by the end of 2021 according to the IMF (see Figure 4). Much of these predictions build on the expectations that governments across the region will lift Covid-19 restrictions. These forecasts may not be unrealistic for the countries where vaccinations have come relatively far and restrictions have started to ease. However, for countries where vaccination rates remain low and new variations of the virus is spreading, the downside risk is still very present, and forecasts contain much uncertainty.

 Figure 4. GDP-growth

Vaccination challenges

Since immunization plays such a central role in re-opening the economy and society going back to normal, issues related to vaccinations were an important and recurring topic at the event. The variation in progress and speed is substantial across the countries, though.

Ukraine and Georgia are still facing big challenges with vaccine availability and have fully vaccinated only 1.3% and 2.3% of the population by the end of June, respectively. Vaccination rates have in the recent month started to pick up, but both countries face an uphill battle before reaching levels close to the more successful countries.

Figure 5. Percent fully vaccinated

Other countries a bit further ahead in the vaccine race are still facing difficulties in increasing the vaccination coverage, though not so much due to lack of availability but instead because of vaccine skepticism. In Belarus, a country that initially had bottleneck issues similar to Ukraine and Georgia, all citizens have the opportunity to get vaccinated. However, Lev Lvovskiy, Senior Research Fellow at BEROC in Belarus, argued that vaccination rates are still low largely because many Belarusians feel reluctant towards the vaccine at offer (Sputnik V).

This vaccination scepticism turns out to be a common theme in many countries. According to different survey results presented by the participants at the webinar, the percentage of people willing or planning to get vaccinated is 30% in Belarus and 44% in Russia. In Latvia, this number also varies significantly across different groups as vaccination rates are significantly lower among older age cohorts and in regions with a higher share of Russian-speaking residents, according to Sergejs Gubins, Research Fellow at BICEPS in Latvia.

Webinar participants discussed potential solutions to these issues. First, there seemed to be consensus that offering people the opportunity to choose which vaccine they get will likely be effective in increasing the uptake rate. Second, governments need to improve their communication regarding the benefits of vaccinations to the public. Several countries in the region, such as Poland and Belarus, have had statements made by officials that deviate from one another, potentially harming the government’s credibility with regards to vaccine recommendations. In Belarus, there have even been government sponsored disinformation campaigns against particular vaccines. In Latvia, the main problem is rather the need to reach and convince groups who are generally more reluctant to get vaccinated. Iurii Ganychenko, Senior Researcher at KSE in Ukraine, exemplified how Ukraine has attempted to overcome this problem by launching campaigns specifically designed to persuade certain age cohorts to get vaccinated. Natalya Volchkova, Director of CEFIR at NES in Russia, argued that new, more modern channels of information, such as professional influencers, need to be explored and that the current model of information delivery is not working.

Giorgi Papava, Lead Economist at ISET PI in Georgia, suggested that researchers can contribute to solving vaccine uptake issues by studying incentive mechanisms such as monetary rewards for those taking the vaccine, for instance in the form of lottery tickets. 

Labour markets looking forward

Participants at the webinar also discussed how the pandemic has affected labour markets and whether its consequences will bring about any long-term changes.

Regarding unemployment statistics, Michal Myck, the Director of CenEA in Poland, made the important point that some of the relatively low unemployment numbers that we have seen in the region during this pandemic are misleading. This is because the traditional definition of being unemployed implies that an individual is actively searching for work, and lockdowns and other mobility restrictions have limited this possibility. Official data on unemployment thus underestimates the drop in employment that has happened, as those losing their jobs in many cases have left the labour market altogether. We thus need to see how labor markets will develop in the next couple of months as economies open up to give a more precise verdict.

Jesper Roine, Professor at SITE in Sweden, stressed that unemployment will be the biggest challenge for Sweden since its economy depends on high labor force participation and high employment rates. He explained that the pandemic and economic crisis has disproportionately affected the labor market status of certain groups. Foreign-born and young people, two groups with relatively high unemployment rates already prior to the pandemic, have become unemployed to an even greater extent. Many are worried that these groups will face issues with re-entering the labour market as in particular long-term unemployment has increased. At the same time, there have been more positive discussions about structural changes to the labour market following the pandemic. Particularly how more employers will allow for distance work, a step already confirmed by several large Swedish firms for instance.

In Russia, a country with a labour market that allowed for very little distance work before the pandemic, similar discussions are now taking place. Natalya Volchkova reported that, in Russia, the number of vacancies which assumed distance-work increased by 10% each month starting from last year, according to one of Russia’s leading job-search platforms HeadHunter. These developments could be particularly beneficial for the regional development in Russia, as firms in more remote regions can hire workers living in other parts of the country.

Concluding Remarks

It has been over a year since the Covid-19 virus was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. This webinar highlighted that, though vaccination campaigns in principle have been rolled out across the region, their reach varies greatly, and countries are facing different challenges of re-opening and recovering from the pandemic recession. Ukraine and Georgia have gotten a very slow start to their vaccination effort due to a combination of lack of access to vaccines and vaccine skepticism. Countries like Belarus and Latvia have had better access to vaccines but are suffering from widespread vaccine skepticism, in particular in some segments of the population and to certain vaccines. Russia, which is also dealing with a broad reluctance towards vaccines, is on top of that dealing with a surge in infections caused by the delta-version of the virus.

IMF Economic Outlook suggests that most economies in the region are expected to bounce back in their GDP growth in 2021. While this positive prognosis is encouraging, the webinar reminded us that there is a great deal of uncertainty remaining not only from an epidemiological perspective but also in terms of the medium to long-term economic consequences of the pandemic.

Participants

  • Iurii Ganychenko, Senior Researcher at Kyiv School of Economics (KSE/Ukraine)
  • Sergejs Gubins, Research Fellow at the Baltic International Centre for Economic Policy Studies (BICEPS/ Latvia)
  • Natalya Volchkova, Director of the Centre for Economic and Financial Research at New Economic School (CEFIR at NES/ Russia)
  • Giorgi Papava, Lead Economist at the ISET Policy Institute (ISET PI/ Georgia)
  • Lev Lvovskiy, Senior Research Fellow at the Belarusian Economic Research and Outreach Center (BEROC/ Belarus)
  • Jesper Roine, Professor at the Stockholm Institute of Transition Economics (SITE / Sweden)
  • Michal Myck, Director of the Centre for Economic Analysis (CenEA / Poland)
  • Anders Olofsgård, Deputy Director of SITE and Associate Professor at the Stockholm School of Economics (SITE / Sweden)

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.

Five Years in Operation: the Polish Universal Child Benefit

Family in the golden hour representing Child Benefits

Over the last five years, Polish families with children have been entitled to a relatively generous benefit of approximately €110 per month and child. Initially granted for every second and subsequent child in the family regardless of income and for the first child for low-income families, the benefit was made fully universal in 2019. With the total costs amounting to as much as 1.7% of Poland’s GDP, the benefit reaches the parents of 6.7 million children and significantly affects these families’ position in the income distribution. Its introduction has led to a substantial reduction in the number of children living in poverty. However, since families with children are more likely to be among households in the upper half of the income distribution, out of the total cost of the benefit, a proportionally greater share ends up in the wallets of high-income families. While the implementation of the benefit has significantly changed the scope of public support to families in Poland, there are many lessons to be learnt and some important revisions to be undertaken to achieve an effective and comprehensive support system.

Introduction

One of the principal commitments in the 2015 Polish parliamentary elections of the then-main opposition party – Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS), was introducing a generous child benefit. The purpose of this benefit was to support families and encourage higher fertility, which had been one of the lowest in the European Union for a long time. Following PiS’s electoral victory, the new government introduced a semi-universal child benefit of approximately €110 per month (exactly 500 PLN per month, thus the Polish nickname of “the 500+ benefit”) in April 2016. Initially, the benefit was granted for every second and subsequent child in the family regardless of income and for the first child in low-income families. Since July 2019 (nota bene three months before the next parliamentary elections), it was made universal – all parents with children under the age of 18 are entitled to 500PLN per month for every child.  The benefit is relatively generous (for comparison, it accounts for 17.9% of the minimum wage in Poland in 2021), and universal coverage implies substantial costs for the government budget, totalling about 41bn PLN per year (1.7% of the Polish GDP).

Over the last five years, a number of analyses of the consequences of the benefit’s introduction have been conducted. These have encompassed a variety of socio-economic outcomes for Polish families with children – from a comprehensive assessment of these consequences (Magda et al. 2019) to analyses focused on specific effects of the benefit, such as the impact on women’s economic activity (Magda et al. 2018, Myck 2016, Myck and Trzciński 2019) or poverty (Brzeziński and Najsztub 2017, Szarfenberg 2017). The fifth anniversary of the benefit’s implementation seems to be a good opportunity for a summary and update of previous evaluations of the distributional consequences and financial gains for households resulting from this policy (an overview of all the previous CenEA analyses of the child benefit can be found in CenEA 2021). The results presented in this brief are based on analyses conducted using the Polish microsimulation model SIMPL on data from the 2019 CSO Household Budget Survey (more details in Myck et al. 2021). It should be noted that the analyses do not account for the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the material situation of households, as the data was collected before the outbreak. As previous studies suggest, the consequences for households of the pandemic and the series of resulting lockdowns varied greatly depending on various factors, such as the sources of income, sector, and form of employment, thus making it impossible to estimate precisely (Myck et al. 2020a).

The Child Benefit on Household Incomes

Due to its universal character, the distributional consequences of the child benefit payments are directly related to the position of households with children aged 0-17 in the income distribution relative to those without. As households with children are more likely to be in the upper half of the distribution (taking into account the demographic structure of households through income equivalisation), out of the total budget expenditure on the benefit, a proportionally greater share goes to high-income families (Table 1). Families with children in the two highest income decile groups (i.e., belonging to the 20% of households with the highest income) currently receive almost 25% of the total annual expenditure on the child benefit. On the other hand, among the 20% of households with the lowest incomes, families with children receive only 11.7% of the total annual cost of the benefit.

Table 1. Household gains resulting from the child benefit by income decile groups

Source: Myck et al. 2021. Notes: Income decile groups – ten groups each covering 10% of the population, from households (HH) with the lowest disposable income to the most affluent households, calculated on the basis of equivalised incomes.

Compared to the poorest 10% of households, families with children in the highest income decile receive 2.5 times more of the total funds allocated to the benefit.

It is also worth noting that the proportion of benefit in the disposable income is relatively evenly distributed if one considers all households in a given decile (with and without children). The proportional benefits in the first nine income deciles are in the range of 3.4% and 5.3% and only fall to 1.9% in the highest income group. A significant differentiation of the benefit in proportional terms can only be seen when accounting solely for households with children within each income decile. The benefit amounts to as much as 26.9% of the disposable income of households with children in the first decile, and the effect falls in subsequent groups – from 18.9% and 16.4% in the second and third deciles, to only 4.1% in the top decile.

The Child Benefit and the Position of Families With Children in the Income Distribution

Taking into account the magnitude of the policy, the position of families with children in the income distribution relative to other households may, to some extent, be the result of receiving the benefit itself. It is, therefore, reasonable to ask what role the benefit plays in shaping this relative position in the income distribution. Figure 1 presents the number of children under 18 in households by income decile groups when the benefit is included in total household income (left panel) and in a hypothetical scenario when the child benefit payment is withdrawn (right panel). As we can see, the withdrawal of the benefit would cause a substantial change in the relative position of families with children in the income distribution, significantly increasing the number of children in the lowest income groups. While in the current system, the poorest 10% of households include 342 thousand children aged 0-17, this number would be 553 thousand in a system without the benefit. However, the benefit also changes the relative position of high-income households with children. In the current system, the richest 10% of households include 762 thousand children. Subtracting the benefit from their household income would reduce this number to 687 thousand.

Figure 1. The child benefit and its impact on the position of families with children in the income distribution

Source: Myck et al. 2021.

Thus, even when taking into account the income distribution without the benefit, the number of children among the richest 10% of households is almost 25% higher than the number of children in the poorest 10% of households. Looking at the income distribution after including the benefit, there are more than twice as many children in the richest 10% of households than among the poorest 10%. This, in turn, inevitably means that, out of the total cost of the benefit, over twice as much money is transferred to households belonging to the richest deciles as compared to the funds transferred to families belonging to the poorest 10% of households.

Discussion

With the total costs amounting to 1.7% of Poland’s GDP, the child benefit introduced in April 2016 substantially raised the level of direct financial support for families with children. As shown in this brief, the benefit reaches the parents of 6.7 million children aged 0-17 and significantly affects the position of these families in the income distribution. While, on the one hand, a large proportion of families with children have incomes high enough to be in the highest income groups even without this support , the lowest decile group would include over 200 thousand more children in the absence of the benefit. This confirms that the child benefit alone contributes to a significant improvement in the material conditions of families with children and to a significant reduction in poverty (cf. Brzezinski and Najsztub, 2017; Szarfenberg, 2017). However, the scale of this reduction is modest given the size of the resources involved. This is not surprising given that the bulk of the total costs of the benefit comes from the 2019 program extension to cover all children regardless of family incomes, which largely ended up in the wallets of higher-income families (Myck et al. 2020b). One of the key goals of the benefit upon introduction was to increase the number of births in Poland by easing the material conditions of families with children. Yet despite a radical increase in the level of support, the number of births in Poland over the period 2017-2020 has essentially remained the same as that forecasted by the Central Statistical Office in its long-term population projection of 2014 (Myck et al. 2021). It is thus difficult to consider the benefit a success in terms of this major objective. Moreover, the withdrawal of the income threshold has largely eliminated the negative disincentive effects of the benefit with regard to employment (Myck and Trzcinski 2019). However, it is unclear whether the post-pandemic economic situation will allow for an increase in female labour force participation, which declined following the introduction of the benefit in 2016 (Magda et al., 2018).

The effects of every socio-economic programme should be assessed by comparing cost-equivalent alternatives. Despite all gains the “500+” child benefit has brought to millions of families in Poland over the last five years, the flagship programme of the ruling Law and Justice party does not fare well in this perspective. The need for change seems much broader than the reform of the benefit alone. The benefit was introduced on top of two other financial support mechanisms focused on families with children, namely family allowances and child tax credits, and the three elements have been operating in parallel since 2016. A number of suggestions on creating a streamlined, comprehensive system have been made a long time ago (e.g., Myck et al. 2016). However, a major restructuring of the entire support system with clearly defined socio-economic policy goals in mind seems all the more justified now, when many families may require additional assistance due to the difficult financial situation related to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Acknowledgement:

This Policy Brief draws on the CenEA Commentary published on 31.03.2021 (Myck et al. 2021). It has been prepared under the FROGEE project, with financial support from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida). The views presented in the Policy Brief reflect the opinions of the Authors and do not necessarily overlap with the position of the FREE Network or Sida.

References

  • Brzeziński, M., Najsztub, M. 2017. The impact of „Family 500+” programme on household incomes, poverty and inequality”, Polityka Społeczna44(1): 16-25.
  • CenEA 2021. Childcare benefit 500+ in CenEA analyses. https://cenea.org.pl/2021/04/06/childcare-benefit-500-in-cenea-analyses/
  • Magda, I., Brzeziński, M., Chłoń-Domińczak, A., Kotowska, I.E., Myck, M., Najsztub, M., Tyrowicz, J. 2019. „Rodzina 500+– ocena programu i propozycje zmian. (“Child benefit 500+: the evaluation of the programme and suggestions for changes”), IBS report.
  • Magda, I., Kiełczewska, A., Brandt, N. 2018. “The Effects of Large Universal Child Benefits on Female Labour Supply”, IZA Discussion Paper No. 11652.
  • Myck, M. 2016. “Estimating Labour Supply Response to the Introduction of the Family 500+ Programme”. CenEA Working Paper 1/2016.
  • Myck, M., Król, A., Oczkowska, M., Trzciński, K. 2021. “Świadczenie wychowawcze po pięciu latach: 500 plus ile?”(„The child benefit after 5 years – 500 plus what?”), CenEA Commentary 31/03/2021.
  • Myck, M., Kundera, M., Najsztub, M., Oczkowska, M. 2016. „25 miliardów złotych dla rodzin z dziećmi: projekt Rodzina 500+ i możliwości modyfikacji systemu wsparcia” („25 billion PLN to families with children: Family 500+ programme and possible modifications of the family support system”),  CenEA Commentary 18/01/2016.
  • Myck, M., Oczkowska, M., Trzciński, K. 2020a. “Household exposure to financial risks: the first wave of impact from COVID-19 on the economy”, CenEA Commentary 23/03/2020.
  • Myck, M., Oczkowska, M., Trzciński, K. 2020b. „Kwota wolna od podatku i świadczenie wychowawcze 500+ po pięciu latach od prezydenckich deklaracji” („Tax credit and child benefit 500+ after five years since electoral declarations”, in PL), CenEA Commentary 22/06/2020.
  • Myck, M., Trzciński, K. 2019. “From Partial to Full Universality: The Family 500+ Programme in Poland and its Labor Supply Implications”, ifo DICE Report 17(03), 36-44.
  • Szarfenberg, R. 2017. “Effect of Child Care Benefit (500+) on Poverty Based on Microsimulation”, Polityka Społeczna 44(1): 25-30.

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.