With each new electoral success of the ruling party in Poland, Law and Justice (PiS), pundits, commentators and analysts point out that its redistributive policies are a key factor in explaining its support. Critics of PiS’ social policies, then, usually follow two lines of argumentation. The first one ascribes a certain materialistic rationality to the public – in this view, voters tolerate bigotry, nationalism and parochialism of the ruling camp as they care more about their economic well-being and living standards. The second denies the same public any rationality — people are ignorant about the economy and strive first and foremost for a sense of community and belonging. Both narratives, in my judgment, are simplistic only partially accounting for the sustained popularity of the Polish regime.

Although social transfers do consolidate support for Law and Justice, especially among the new voters of the party, they are not a simple economic transaction, in which political support is exchanged for money. The welfare transactions are perceived as a symbol of a new beginning after three decades of austerity and the hyper-individualism of the free market. There is a tragic dimension to this: the façade of social justice not only justifies the undermining of the rule of law; it also hides growing inequalities of income and opportunity.

Social transfers as imagined community building

“Family 500+” (Rodzina 500+), a flagship social program of the ruling party that provided families with 500 PLN (ca. 128 USD) of monthly benefits for every child after  their first-born irrespective of their income, gained massive social support immediately after it was announced in the first months of Law and Justice’s rule. According to a poll conducted by the Center for the Study of Public Opinion (CBOS) in February 2016, 80% of the Polish public was in favor of the program. In subsequent months, approval ratings of Family 500+ remained very high. When the program was expanded to cover every child, it was still supported by a clear majority of 75%.

It is very tempting to look at these numbers and conclude that Poles allowed themselves to be bribed by Law and Justice’s social spending. Indeed, many liberal critics  were quick to do so. But a closer look at the support for Family 500+ shows that acceptance for the main and most costly family welfare program offered by Law and Justice does not automatically translate into unequivocal support for the party. The percentage of Family 500+ supporters among respondents voting for the opposition remains very high. Moreover, qualitative studies concerned with newly acquired and somewhat hesitant supporters of PiS, conducted by the Batory Foundation, show that many do not buy into the full package of anti-cosmopolitanism and traditional values, rather voting for Law and Justice for fear of losing the only social benefit granted by the state. This mindset of the “fearful supporter” is also captured in a discourse analysis of debates on the program conducted by Maria Theiss at the University of Warsaw. One of the dominant discourses on Family 500+ she singled out is based on fear of losing entitlement rather than gratitude towards the party benefactors.

The secret of Family 500+’s undisputed popularity, thus, transcends simple political clientelism. By introducing the program, Law and Justice managed to capture a broad social sentiment — an expectation that after nearly three decades of self-imposed austerity, Poles could finally enjoy at least some welfare provisions similar to the ones widespread in Western Europe. Contrary to what many critics of the government argue, both in Poland and abroad, the embrace of the ruling party’s social transfers by a clear majority of Poles does not mean this constituency is turning their back on the West, but rather striving for a different way to become like the West, at last.

The ruling party is clearly the main political beneficiary of finding a way to fulfill this expectation. The image of the political force that manages to “overcome impossibilism”, to use an often-quoted phrase coined by PiS chairman Jarosław Kaczyński, does not automatically translate into votes in all segments of society. It does, though, effectively hold the opposition in thrall. Law and Justice resembles a company that first offered certain product at a significantly lower price than the competitor, and enjoys the benefits of being first to do so, even though others have already managed to outbid them with generous promises.

The real end of the transition from communism

That the free market focused transition paradigm might have outlived its political expiration date was already apparent during the rule of PiS’s liberal predecessor, Civic Platform (PO). The paradigm, based on the assumption that Poland needed to maintain fiscal discipline at all costs and continue attracting foreign investors with low wages and taxes in order to avoid repeating Poland’s economic crisis of the 1980s. was questioned by one of its main proponents, former Prime Minister Donald Tusk. In 2011, he defended governmental plans to repair state finances by rolling back private pensions in order to provide additional funds for the public pensions system, claiming his liberal principles had become more flexible with age and that he was now ready to acknowledge limitations of laissez faire economics.

Tusk’s “flexible liberalism” was a clear sign that the transition paradigm was giving way to a new set of more welfare-oriented social expectations. Civic Platform tried to respond to it, though ineffectively. On the one hand, it both started to invest in daycare facilities for children under 3 and tried to lower school age to 6 so that children would start education a year earlier. These policies constituted much needed, even if insufficient, attempts at improving accessibility to public services, which would in the long run improve opportunities for children, especially those from underprivileged families. On the other hand, the government raised the retirement age, an economically and demographically sensible reform given the increased longevity of the population and needs of the public pensions system. However, as it was not accompanied by increased protection of labor, it was perceived by many as an attempt to undermine social rights.

Liberals were internally conflicted and politically inconsistent in their responses to the social questions of post-transition Poland. The conservative Law and Justice did not have similar reservations or hesitations, even though its economic policies were in some regards even more liberal and market-oriented when it formed a government for the first time between 2005 and 2007.

Illusion of a new beginning

Unburdened by dilemmas that liberals struggled with and determined to consolidate their power, PiS did not hesitate to radically increase social spending, particularly for family benefits in the framework of the Family 500+ program. Initially the main declared goal was to increase fertility rates, but demographers were skeptical. Many pointed out that the decision to have more than one child is a very complex one. It does not primarily depend on increased disposable income per capita in the family, but more importantly on the ability to reconcile work and family obligations.

When the program failed to significantly improve fertility rates, the government started to stress poverty reduction as the most important achievement of its flagship social program. The initial success of Family 500+ in reducing poverty, especially extreme poverty among young children, was indeed impressive and much needed. With more money at their disposal, less affluent families could also repay some of their debts, as confirmed by data from the Bureau of Credit Information (BIK). As a consequence, “first family vacation at the Baltic Sea” became an almost proverbial result of the program, a symbolic encapsulation of its social achievements. When it was pointed out that poverty reduction could be even more cost-effective if the benefit would be based on income criteria, the government responded that the semi-unconditional character of the program avoids stigmatization of poorer beneficiaries and was saving money on auditing.

These arguments, however, are becoming increasingly unconvincing in the face of recent data from the Main Statistical Office (GUS) which shows that in 2018 extreme poverty was on the rise again. Prices, especially of food, have been steadily rising in Poland for quite some time, and the benefits from Family 500+, paid out irrespective of families’ income, have proven to be increasingly insufficient, especially for families whose household budget is spent predominantly on necessities.

Moreover, in 2019, Law and Justice decided to expand Family 500+ in a bold attempt to outbid the opposition even before competing coalitions were formed and the campaign officially started. Now the program covers every child — again, irrespective of family’s income. As calculated by economists from the Polish think tank CenEA, 10% of the poorest Polish families will benefit from additional 0,3 billion PLN, while 10% of the richest will receive additional 5 billion. We can reasonably expect that any redistributive effects the program had in its initial phase will be quickly diminished.

Family benefits introduced by Law and Justice after the party’s rise to power were aimed at consolidation of its electoral success, but they also responded to the genuine need for a new, post-transition paradigm in public policy, as shown by massive popular support for Family 500+. Now, when extreme poverty is on the rise again and the program in its expanded version is increasing income inequalities rather than reducing them, it has become increasingly clear that PiS has not provided a viable answer to the persistent social question in Poland.

The problem is that PiS’s non-answer is often perceived as proof that a real answer does not exist. During the difficult period of transition, many Polish families learned the hard way that they have only themselves to rely on. Under Law and Justice’s government, not much has changed, the only change being the monthly money transfer of diminishing real value. The old transition paradigm died, but both the opposition and PiS have failed to propose a new one. The latter, in a stroke of truly genial social intuition, managed to come up with a semblance of a new beginning, but its illusory nature is becoming increasingly clear.

After the financial crisis of 2008, the old order collapsed, but refused to die. The whole globe lives on borrowed time with no new bold ideology organizing dreams of a better future. Poland, contrary to self-serving statements of the current ruling party, is no exception.

Dr. Paweł Marczewski is a sociologist and head of a research unit Citizens at the ideaForum, think tank of the Batory Foundation.