In the Polish election last autumn the winning party, PiS, took control, some say thanks to its election promise of the 500+ program. The 500 Plus program works like this: a benefit of 500 PLN is paid to families for the second child plus any additional children after that. We are not talking only about new births, but also existing children. So if you have 3 children, you should receive 1000 PLN monthly (0 for the first child + 500 for the second child + 500 for the third child = 1000 PLN). If the family income falls under a certain amount, that family gets the benefit for all the children. Receiving the 500+ does not affect other benefits a family might receive from other institutions. In comparison, the minimum wage is/was 1850 PLN gross and is due to rise to 2000 PLN gross as of January 2017. That is the monthly payment for 40 hours per week.
Some call it a social program. Some call it a handout. Some call it a lifesaver while others call it vote buying. No matter our feelings about it socially or morally, we must remember its effect economically. The government is not paying people from its own money. The government’s money is our money. And according to the latest proposal of the government, my family’s taxes are due to go up next year about the amount of 2x 500+. Somebody has to pay for it, right? Perhaps they could take it from the Smolensk commission budget.
I don’t believe there are any comprehensive studies at the moment on the effect of the 500+ so I have done some independent and completely unscientific research…in my village. A couple of years ago, I talked to a neighbor lady, they call her Fat Kasia which I find unnecessarily cruel as she is the only adult Kasia in the whole village. Anyhow, we were chatting at the village shop as you do when you are in the village. From the contents of her shopping of flour, potatoes, white cheese, and cigarettes, I gathered that Kasia was planning to make a batch of pierogi for the weekend. She lamented greatly at the cost of everything on their one salary and how unfair it was that the furniture factory didn’t pay her husband his salary on time. I agreed that not getting paid on time certainly wasn’t fair indeed, but I also inquired as to her interest in getting a job, you know, to take the pressure off. There were plenty of job offers at the new sawmill just 2 kilometers away. Kasia could not hide her shock and dismay at my inquiry. “I have a child!” she exclaimed. “I have two!” I exclaimed back. Nobody was judging. Nobody was offended. It was just a difference in our vision of our own lives. Over the next couple of weeks and over a few more conversations, Kasia decided to try to get a job at the sawmill. Her child was 8 years old then, and they lived meters from the school doors. And guess what. She got that job. That first Christmas Kasia had as an employed person was as she put it herself, “the best they’d ever had”. She was pleased to have the job, the possibility of paid overtime on Saturdays if she wanted, and a pleasant holiday season without the usual financial stress from years past.
Then Kasia got pregnant with their very much wanted second child. I met her a few times in front of the shop, her pregnant belly standing in stark contrast to the cigarette she had in her hand. My look must have spoken volumes because she later said to my husband, “What? I quit drinking at least.” Kasia had her baby about a year ago. I still meet her in front of the shop, baby in one hand, baby bottle of Kubus and cigarette in the other hand. Kasia is not going back to work. She’s decided that it doesn’t pay. Even though she would not lose her 500+ benefit. Even though the sawmill offered her a part-time job to start back. Even though her mother offered to babysit those 4-5 hours a day while she’s at work and cook dinner for the family. Even though she’d get a bit more than 1000 PLN a month from her employer, another 500 from the 500+ program, and secure her job position if she decided to return to full-time. It’s just not worth it to her. I’ve read a recent report that says there is absolutely no evidence that people are dropping out of the workforce due to the 500+ benefit. I find that hard to believe as most of us know at least one person and in my case several people who have done just that.
It is no surprise that money we get for nothing has a higher value than money we get for doing something, for example working - especially for someone earning minimum wage, having small children, and needing to travel to and from work each day. Transportation, good winter attire, childcare – it can cost you a significant part of your salary just to earn that salary. That wasn’t the case for Kasia, but yet she still decided not to go back to work. I returned to work relatively quickly after having each child. I was in fear of losing my contracts. There was a time when I did not even earn my ZUS payment (Social Security), not to mention my transportation costs or the babysitter, but I had to do it in hopes of a better future.
Continuing my unscientific research, I have been chatting with the local shop owner. Our village has a population of about 500 people. We have a primary school, a public library, a doctor’s office, a fire station, a chapel, and one shop. Our shop has got the basics, and as you can imagine, the shop is more expensive than the discount shops in the next town over. I don’t really think twice about the cost when I’ve got a kid on the toilet, and I’m running to Mr. Mariusz to buy toilet paper. (It happens more often than I’d like to admit.) The next town is only 7 kilometers away, but without a car, that’s too far for some locals to do their shopping. I inquired if Mr. Mariusz had noticed any changes in local shopping behavior since the 500+ payments started a few months ago. He has noticed some changes. He said some people came in and settled their credits (the infamous zeszyt) immediately, knowing that Mr. Mariusz knows that they got their money. Some people stocked up on the basics, perhaps enjoying the feeling of a fully-stocked kitchen cupboard for the first time in a long time. One lady has done a reverse-zeszyt by giving Mr. Mariusz all the 500 and deducting her shopping from there each time. She allows her husband 100 of the money on the zeszyt for his beer and cigarettes, and not a grosz more. It appears that women are in charge of budgeting that money. Mr. Mariusz has also reported that sales of beer and cigarettes has gone up significantly. He stopped selling hard alcohol some years ago as some of his customers were quickly drinking themselves in unconsciousness outside the shop doors.
What have I noticed? At the start, new trampolines and bikes appeared in our village. Cartons of cigarettes replaced packs or cigarettes. In some cases, packs of cigarette have replaced homemade cigarettes. This year there were not scenes in the front of the shop about a father drinking all the public benefit the kids got for school shoes. I’m not saying that money was not drunk, but there was an additional source of income to buy shoes from. We’ll find out this winter if we have similar scenes of selling the public benefit coal for cash and then stealing wood from other neighbors as it was last year.
Talking to my neighbors and friends in the village, many of them say they voted solely for that 500+ program. They have the knowledge that it most certainly is detrimental to the economy and they don’t care. One family has got one little kid at home and two teens in the orphanage. Since the 500+, they have been trying to get their kids back from the orphanage. They didn’t lose them because they were poor, but because their behavior prevented the kids from going to school. The kids don’t want to come back, not even so the parents can get the 500+ benefit for them. At the orphanage they have clothes, food, school books, a computer room, and basic cell phones. Smart kids.
What about people like me? The ministers were happily talking about people like me who could now afford extra music or language lessons for their children, invest in their kids education. I even saw a car today with a bumper sticker that said “Financed by 500+”. I am now aware that in the new year I will most likely be in the minus and not the plus with this plan. No cóż. Co robić?