Tag: Policy reform

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

20240423 Widowhood in Poland Image 02

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.

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  • 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.

What Is the Evidence on the Swedish “Paternity Leave” Policy?

20240204 Swedish Paternity Leave image representing fathers parental leave policy

Since 1995, Sweden has earmarked an increasing number of parental leave days to each parent, creating a strong incentive for fathers to increase their (traditionally low) parental leave uptake. The literature on the causal impacts of these policies establishes several important findings. First, the incentive seems to work, as fathers tend to increase their uptake of paternity leave. However, who responds to the incentive, the timing of the leave and how mothers adjust to it is heterogenous, depending on the policy design and the underlying couple characteristics. Second, there is no strong support in the data for the argument, popular in public opinion and among policy-makers, that paternity leave should improve the balance of childcare duties within a couple and ultimately enhance women’s labor market position. However, in order to estimate causal effects, the studies reviewed in this policy brief focus on the first cohort of families affected by earmarked parental policies, whereas impacts on mothers’ labor market outcomes are more likely to manifest in the long run. Further, paternity leave policies in the broader sense have benefitted mothers’ health post childbirth and they may also have broken the social stigma on fathers taking time off to care for their children. Finally, recent evidence suggests that earmarking has improved gender attitudes in the next generation, making men less likely to hold stereotypical views about gender roles in society.

Parental Leave in Sweden

All parents in Sweden have been entitled to paid parental leave benefits since 1974, with no difference between birthing and non-birthing parents (for simplicity referred to as mothers and fathers henceforth). Despite this, fathers’ parental leave take-up has historically been very low (see Figure 1).

To change this pattern, the legislator has introduced a few reforms over the years. In 1995, 30 of the wage-replaced days (i.e. parental leave days compensated at almost the rate of the daily wage) were earmarked to each parent, creating the so called ”mum/dad month”. When a parent failed to take up these 30 days these would be “lost”, as earmarked days could not be transferred to the other parent. Through two subsequent reforms, effective from 2002 and 2016 respectively, the number of earmarked wage-replaced days increased, first to sixty days and then to ninety days.

Today, the total allowance is 480 benefit days, of which 390 are wage-replaced (paid at about 80 percent of the parent’s wage), and the remaining 90 are compensated at a low flat rate (approximately 15 euros per day). 90 of the wage-replaced days are earmarked to each parent. The parental leave days can be utilized until the day the child turns 12 or until the child finishes 5th grade, but 80 percent of these days must be used by the time the child turns 4.

As shown in Figure 1, father’s share of the total parental leave steadily grew over the years when the earmarking reforms occurred but has since 2018 stalled at a rate of 69/31 (i.e., mothers and fathers take 69 and 31 percent respectively of the total number of leave days claimed in Sweden during one year).

Figure 1. Men’s share of parental leave days in Sweden, 1974-2021, in percent.

Source: Author’s compilation based on data from Statistics Sweden.

One could speculate, based on these trends, that earmarking might have successfully increased father’s take-up of parental leave. However, without rigorous statistical analysis, it is virtually impossible to distinguish between the role of the earmarking polices and secular trends in preferences over parental leave. Thankfully, a few papers have studied the Swedish parental leave reforms, using state-of-the art techniques to understand their respective causal impacts. What is the research-based evidence on the Swedish parental leave earmarking reforms? Did they successfully incentivize fathers to increase their take-up? Did they succeed in their broader goal of balancing child responsibilities within couples, ultimately helping women improve their position in the labor-market? How were children affected by them? What lessons from the Swedish experience can be useful for fine-tuning of the Swedish policy or for similar designs in other countries?

This policy brief delves into the academic literature on the impacts of the Swedish earmarking reforms. The review is by no means representative of the large amount of academic work produced on the Swedish parental leave reforms. Rather, it is a small selection of studies where results can be more easily interpreted as causal impacts, as they are based on comparing families with children born just before versus just after the relevant date for the policy implementation, and account for so called month-of-birth effects (see e.g. Larsen et al., 2017) when needed. Causal estimates can be more directly used to inform policy-making, which is what motivates the focus of this review.

Earmarking and Take-up of Paternity Leave

As explained above, the Swedish earmarking system creates strong incentives for fathers to increase their take-up of leave days, as these would otherwise be “lost”, leaving couples with the need to resort to potentially more costly arrangements for childcare.

It is thus not surprising that the 1995 reform increased fathers’ take-up of wage-replaced leave by an average of 15 days, 50 percent of the pre-reform take-up (Ekberg et al., 2013). This change seems to mostly stem from the 54 percent of fathers who were taking 0 days of leave before the reform and were induced to take between 20 and 40 days after, so that the percentage of fathers not taking any leave declined to 18 precent.

In a recent working paper, Avdic et al. (2023) complement this evidence, considering all leave days together. They show that the reform induced fathers to increase their take-up of total parental leave by 21 days, whereby mothers decreased it by the same amount. Therefore, on average, the total amount of leave taken by Swedish parents remained unchanged, but the mother’s share decreased by about 5.4 percentage points. The paper also compares changes in parents’ take-up month-by-month, finding that some mothers took some unpaid leave within the child’s first year to compensate for the loss of wage-replaced days. It is not clear why these mothers would not resort to the low flat rate leave, as other mothers seem to have done (see Ekberg at al., 2013). In general, the data points to fathers having mostly, although not exclusively, substituted for mothers’ time with the child during the child’s second year of life.

Avdic and Karimi (2018) extend the policy-evaluation to the 2002 reform, which earmarked one additional month to each parent, but also made one more month of wage-replaced leave available. They find that this reform also caused an increase in take-up of paternity leave, but for a different group of fathers. While in 1995 fathers that otherwise would have taken no leave were induced to take approximately one month, the 2002 shift occurred mostly among fathers who, instead of taking between 30 and 40 days of leave, started taking more than 50 days.

These findings are consistent with those in Alden et al. (2023), who study the characteristics of fathers who do not take any leave. They find that while the 1995 reform changed the composition of this group of fathers, the same thing did not happen with the 2002 and 2016 reforms. Over-time, one group of men consistently stands out for not taking any parental leave regardless of the incentives created by the legislator, namely fathers with worse labor-market positions, and whose earnings are lower than that of the mothers.

Paternity Leave and Gender Gaps

The main motivation for policies that seek to increase the take-up of parental leave among fathers is that this increase can help women, especially high-skilled ones, improve their labor-market position (Ekberg et al., 2013). The economics literature has long established a systematic loss in earnings and employment for women following the birth of their first child (the so-called child penalty; see e.g. Kleven et al., 2019). There are two main mechanisms through which earmarking policies could improve women’s labor market outcomes. First, if firms discriminate against women because of the (perceived) cost of maternity leave, the discrimination should decline once employers expect also men to take parental leave. Ginja et al. (2020) show evidence (although not causal) consistent with long maternity leaves reducing child-bearing aged women’s “attractiveness” among Swedish employers.  Second, by creating a stronger bond between fathers and children, and by reducing mothers’ specialization in childcare, paternity leave should increase the time fathers allocate to childcare as the child grows up, thus re-balancing the division of non-market (and possibly market) work within the couple.

As pointed out in Cools et al. (2015), the first type of effect, more likely to be relevant in the long run, is hard to estimate with data from only one country, as virtually all employers in the country should be somewhat affected by the change in perceptions.

Instead, Ekberg et al. (2013) study the effect on intra-household division of childcare responsibilities, by estimating the impact of the 1995 reform on the amount of time that fathers and mothers claim off work when their child is sick. They find no evidence that the 1995 reform increased the share of time off taken by fathers to care for sick children. Consistently, the study also fails to find evidence of large and robust changes in mothers’ earnings for thirteen years post childbirth. Similarly, Avdic et al. (2023) show that mothers affected by the 1995 reform did not increase, on average, their labor supply, except during the first year of the child’s life.

While these analyses are extremely valuable for our understanding of the reforms’ effects on the first cohort of families affected, they fall short of capturing long-term dynamics. For instance, it is important to acknowledge that the decision on who takes time off when the child is sick depends on many factors, including the availability of flexible arrangements at work. Women are known for selecting into occupations and jobs that allow a more flexible schedule (Goldin, 2014). This pattern might change if the increase in take-up of paternity leave leads to updated expectations among women on partners’ willingness to share daycare responsibility. This is most likely a long-term development, which the design used in the above outlined studies does not capture.

Another effect of the Swedish parental leave system, not directly linked to earmarking but nevertheless indicative of the importance of fathers’ time off work during the child’s first year of life, is that on mothers’ health. Persson and Rossin-Slater (2019) show that a Swedish 2012 reform that in practice allowed fathers to take 30 days of parental leave in concomitance with the mother during the child’s first year of life reduced the likelihood of mothers experiencing health issues due to post-partum complications.

An important aspect that the literature has so far not emphasized is also that earmarking reforms might affect another gender gap, namely the “freedom” to take the leave. Given the traditional division of roles across genders, there might be a stigma at a societal level against men taking parental leave. By creating strong economic incentives for taking paternity leave, the earmarking policies may downplay the stigma in the short-term and break it in the long-term. There is some suggestive, although not definitive, evidence that norms around paternity leave might have changed. Avdic and Karimi (2018) show that between 1995 and 2002 the share of fathers who were taking more than one month of leave had already started increasing before the second month was earmarked. More research would be needed, however, to assess the role of policies in changing societal perceptions around paternity leave.

Paternity Leave and Children’s Outcomes

An obvious question to ask is how children are affected by earmarking of parental leave days. Avdic et al. (2023) study this question in the context of the 1995 reform. By looking separately at different groups of children by sex and parents’ education, they find that the 1995 reform caused a decline in GPA for sons of non-college-educated fathers and mothers. The most likely channel for this relationship, according to the authors, is boys’ diminished access to fathers’ time, due to the 1995 reform increasing the likelihood of couple dissolution within the child’s first three years of life (for households with low-earning mothers). At that time children tended to live predominantly with the mother in case of parental separation. However, a potential additional channel could be the worsened economic situation caused by the paternity leave. In households with low-earning mothers, mothers’ and family earnings declined post-reform due to mothers compensating for “lost” leave days by taking unpaid leave. Very conflictual separations could also be behind the effect on children’s GPA.

These findings highlight the importance of considering potential unintended consequences of the parental leave policies, and the diverse effects they might have on different demographic groups. Such considerations could improve the design of future policies. For instance, Avdic and Karimi (2018) find that the 2002 reform, which earmarked one more month and added one month of wage-replaced parental leave, did not cause couple dissolution. Thus, the authors conclude that not imposing strong constraints on households, while creating incentives for fathers to take paternity leave, is highly desirable.

Finally, in a very recent working paper, Fontenay and Gonzalez (2024) consider the effect of earmarking policies on children’s gender attitudes as adults, leveraging data from online surveys of 3,000 respondents across six European countries, including Sweden. They study changes in attitudes as measured by an Implict Association Test, which is meant to capture subconscious associations between women and family and men and career.  In five of the countries studied they find that male respondents born soon after an earmarking reform have less stereotypical gender attitudes than those born before. No differences are detected for women. The effect in Sweden is one of the largest: in a sample of 237 male respondents, the father being eligible for the “dad-month” makes the child hold more egalitarian gender-attitudes as an adult by 0.3 standard deviations. The authors suggest that a role model effect might be at play, whereby boys who observe their fathers being more involved in childcare are nurtured to hold more egalitarian beliefs about gender roles.

Conclusion

Since 1995, Sweden has earmarked an increasing number of parental leave days to each parent, creating strong incentives for fathers to increase their previously very low parental leave uptake. This policy brief has reviewed the literature that studies the causal impacts of these earmarking reforms, highlighting a number of important conclusions as well as gaps in the knowledge on the effects of these policies.

First, the incentives created by the earmarking policies seem to work, as fathers tend to increase their uptake of paternity leave, while mothers tend to increase their labor supply during their child’s first year of life. However, such effects are heterogeneous, depending on the policy design and the underlying couple characteristics. Designs that impose strong constraints on household choices seem to have adverse effects on low-income or low-education households, reducing mothers’ earnings, triggering couple dissolution, and negatively affecting children’s GPA. Future increases in earmarking or similar policies in other countries should consider these design details carefully.

Second, there is no strong support in the data for the argument, popular in the public opinion and among policy makers, that paternity leave improves the balance of childcare duties within a couple and that it ultimately enhances women’s labor market position. However, to estimate causal effects, the studies analyzed in this policy brief focus on the first cohort of families affected by the earmarked reforms, whereas impacts on mothers’ labor market outcomes are more likely to be seen in the long run. After all, Sweden is one of the countries with the lowest documented child penalty in employment and earnings (see the child penalty atlas), and it is unlikely that policy played no role in narrowing gender gaps among parents. Consistently, recent evidence suggests that earmarking has improved gender attitudes in the next generation, making men less likely to hold stereotypical views about gender roles in society.

Further, it is important to mention that paternity leave policies in general have benefitted mothers’ post-childbirth health and that they may have broken a societal stigma around fathers taking time off to care for their children.

References

  • Aldén, L., Boschini, A. and Tallås Ahlzen, M. (2023). Fathers but not Caregivers. http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4405212
  • Avdic, D. and Karimi, A., (2018). Modern family? Paternity leave and marital stability. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 10(4), pp. 283-307.
  • Avdic, D., Karimi, A., Sundberg, E. and Sjögren, A. (2023). Paternity leave and child outcomes. IFAU, Working Paper 25.
  • Ekberg, J., Eriksson, R., and Friebel, G. (2013). Parental leave—A policy evaluation of the Swedish “Daddy-Month” reform. Journal of Public Economics, 97, pp. 131-143.
  • Ginja, R., Karimi, A. and Pengpeng Xiao. (2023). Employer responses to family leave programs. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 15(1), pp. 107-135.
  • Goldin, C., (2014). A grand gender convergence: Its last chapter. American Economic Review, 104(4), pp. 1091-1119.
  • Gonzalez, L. and Fontenay, S. (2024). Can Public Policies Break the Gender Mold? Evidence from Paternity Leave Reforms in Six Countries. BSE, Working Paper 1422.
  • Kleven, H., Landais, C., Posch, J., Steinhauer, A. and Zweimüller, J. (2019). Child penalties across countries: Evidence and explanation”. AEA Papers and Proceedings, 109, pp. 122-126.
  • Larsen, E. R. and Solli, I. F. (2017). Born to run behind? Persisting birth month effects on earnings. Labour Economics, 46, pp. 200-210.
  • Persson, P., and Rossin-Slater, M. (2019). When dad can stay home: fathers’ workplace flexibility and maternal health. National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper 25902.

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.

The Inevitable Social Security Reforms in Belarus

In 2016, Belarus will face the need to reform its social protection policy. The three main directions of reforms will be to departure from subsidized tariffs, to reform the pension system, and to increase unemployment benefits. Needless to say, some of these reforms will be highly unpopular. The government needs not only to cut expenditures, but also to think about new ways of providing targeted social support.

Faced with an anemic growth over the last 5 years and a GDP decline of 3.9 percent in 2015, Belarus has to rethink its economic policy. While the government is so far reluctant to undertake serious structural reforms, the decrease in budget revenues and lack of access to international financing leaves the authorities with few other options than to reform the social security system. This push might actually be a good thing, as social security in Belarus needs to depart from its current non-sustainable model of subsidies for everyone, to a model of focused means-tested social support.

Subsidized Tariffs

A lot of government-set tariffs in Belarus are currently subsidized. Utility service tariffs and transport fees are lower than the costs of providing these services. This is especially true for the heating tariffs, which currently cover 10-20 percent of total costs.

The subsidization policies are inefficient, as they benefit the rich (who consume more) rather than the poor in need of government support. Moreover, in the case of energy tariffs, cross-subsidization leads to higher energy costs for the firms, making them less competitive. Both prospective creditors, the IMF and the Eurasian Fund for Stabilization and Development, demand that the subsidies are gradually removed.

Zhang and Hankinson (2015) estimate the effects of an increase of the heating tariff on welfare. They find that the burden of higher tariffs will mostly fall on low-income groups. In particular, if the heating tariffs increase to 100 percent of the costs, households from the lowest income quintile will spend over 16 percent of their income on energy. Therefore, the authors conclude that the government should introduce a targeted social assistance together with the tariff increase.

While tariff increases were already introduced in the beginning of 2016, a targeted social assistance is still only a project.

Unemployment Benefits

Despite calling itself a social economy, Belarus has inexplicably low unemployment benefits (currently below 10EUR per month in Minsk). These low unemployment benefits contribute to a very low registered unemployment rate – 1 percent in November 2015. The more adequate measure of unemployment, based on labor force surveys, is classified in Belarus. However, large-scale job cuts in the biggest state-owned enterprises suggest that unemployment is a real threat.

Akulava (2015) argues, that given the current situation on the labor market, unemployment benefits should be increased to at least the minimal subsistence level. However, unemployment benefits per se will not solve all the problems in the labor market, and Belarus needs more active labor market policies facilitating the retraining and reallocation of workers.

The IMF has also emphasized the need to introduce proper unemployment insurance. The government has already pre-announced an introduction of increased unemployment benefits, but the details and dates are still unclear. There is a risk that, as many other policies in Belarus, the unemployment support will favor the state-controlled part of the economy and only offer increased support for those laid off from state-owned enterprises.

Pension Reform

The Belarusian pension system has not change much since the Soviet times: it is still a pay-as-you-go redistributive system, with a pension age among the lowest in Europe (55 for women and 60 for men). The Pension Fund first registered a deficit in 2013, and given the ageing population, deficits will only deepen in the future.

Due to relatively low fertility rates (1.6 per woman) and increasing life expectancy, the Belarusian population is quickly ageing: In 2015, there are 4 persons of retirement age per 10 persons of working age, but in 2035, this ratio will be 6 per 10.

Lisenkova and Bornukova (2015) build a demographically accurate overlapping generations model of Belarusian economy to estimate the stability of the pension system. They find that if the current parameters do not change, the deficit of the Pension Fund will explode up to 9% in 2050 (line 55/60 in Figure 1).

Figure 1. The Pension fund deficits under different scenarios, in % of GDP

FREE_brief_Bel_social

Source: Lisenkova and Bornukova, 2015

The authors also estimate different reform scenarios. An increase in the contribution rate and a decrease in the replacement rate (ratio of average pension to the average wage) do not seem feasible, as the current contribution rate of 29 percent is already too high, and the replacement rate is near the minimum set by the National Development Strategy 2020. The most obvious reform is then to increase the pension age for women, who retire 5 years earlier than men, despite having 10 years longer life expectancy. However, as can be seen from line 60/60 in Figure 1, equating the pension ages for women and men will not be enough to curb the deficits. Another simulated reform is to gradually increase pension age to 65 years for everyone, after increasing it to 60 for women only. This reform would mean that the deficits would be kept below 1 percent of GDP (and even generate a small proficit by 2035, although in a very long perspective the deficit will increase to 2 percent again (line 65/65)). In the very long run, Belarus needs to build a fully funded pension system.

The need to increase the pension age is already on the public debate agenda, and the authorities recognize the need for reforms. Needless to say, however, this move will be very unpopular.

Conclusion

The current economic crisis gives an opportunity and incentive to make Belarusian social policy more efficient. This policy brief describes the three major fields of reform. Subsidized tariffs are unfair and inefficient, but before removing subsidies the government should create a targeted system of social assistance to those in need. Increasing unemployment (and demands from the creditors) may force the government to change its unemployment benefit policy. The pension system needs reforms, but these would be difficult to implement due to unpopularity.

References

  • Akulava, M. (2015), ‘Unemployment insurance as a tool of social protection’, BEROC policy paper series, PP no. 32 (in Russian)
  • Lisenkova, K., and Bornukova K. (2015), ‘Effects of Population Ageing on the Pension System in Belarus’, BEROC working paper series, WP no. 28
  • Zhang, F., and Hankinson, D. (2015), ‘Belarus Heat Tariff Reform and Social Impact Mitigation,’ World Bank Publications, The World Bank, number 22574