“You don’t chose your family. They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them.” The words of Desmond Tutu. Or, if you prefer, there is George Bernard Shaw, “a happy family is but an earlier heaven.” And, although they might not express it quite like this, the Polish government has honoured one of its election promises to bring a small token of heaven to Polish families.
On Monday the government approved a new system of payments which are designed to encourage families to have more children. One of the main pledges in the Law and Justice (PiS) manifesto for last October’s elections, it is hoped that the payments of PLN 500 per month will go some way to dealing with Poland’s twin demographic problems – low birth rates and high emigration.
Speaking at a press conference in the Polish Parliament (Sejm) on Monday, Prime Minister Beata Szydło said “Support for families is the top priority for my government […] today I can say that I have kept my word.” “A child is the best form of investment in the future. This is not a cost, it’s an investment,” she added.
Under the “500+” programme, families with two or more children will receive PLN 500 (EUR 113, USD 123) per month for each child. Poorer families with an income beneath the threshold will also receive the payment, even if they have only one child. The government wants the payments, which will cost some PLN 17 billion this year, to start from April. Needless to say, the programme has attracted controversy. Some have argued that better off families should not claim the new allowance, even though they will be entitled to do so, which, of course, does not actually say anything about those for whom the payments will make a difference. Besides, universal benefits have historically helped to buy the acceptance of all to the welfare system, and those who do not need the money may simply decide not to claim it.
Whether it will make any difference to Poland’s birth rates remains to be seen. A strong economy offering good prospects for the nation’s young folk and a general sense of security, well-being, and optimism for the future seem at least as important, if not more so. Despite parliament approving the 2016 budget on Sunday, which foresees GDP growth of 3.8 per cent, inflation at 1.7 per cent and a budget deficit not exceeding PLN 54.7 (EUR 12.4, USD 13.4) billion, some would argue that elements of PiS’s policies – especially its approach to democracy and the rule of law – create a rather different climate.
In this regard, the bill approved by the Senate on Sunday (having been approved by the lower house on Thursday) to combine the posts of Justice Minister and state prosecutor does not sit particularly well. Part of a wider reform of the country’s prosecution service, the bill has been criticised by the opposition, who say it will erode the independence of prosecutors and subject them to political pressure, while the justice minister says the changes will make prosecutors more efficient. The Justice Minister, Zbigniew Ziobro, will take on the role of state prosecutor on 4th March, and a month later the military prosecution service, a separate body, will be disbanded.
Be that as it may, the government is right to try to help families which are at the core of any society worthy of the name. We have only to look at the United States and the United Kingdom to see the devastating effects for all concerned – not least the tax payer – of the breakdown of the traditional family, with generations of children being left without family role models, ill-equipped to face the future, and destined to a life of lack of achievement, crime or worse. Poland is, of course, a long way from the dangers of welfarism and, as a former head of the Bundesbank put it, subsidising society to become ever more stupid by paying the feckless to have the children the hard working folk cannot afford.
Perhaps we might end with the words of Pope John Paul II. “The great danger for family life, in the midst of any society whose idols are pleasure, comfort and independence, lies in the fact that people close their hearts and become selfish.”