• incomegap

    Illustration Ragni Svensson. To view the five figures related to the article, please press the numbers above the illustration.

  • income spread2

    Income spread.

  • fig-2

    Figure 2. D9/D1 in Poland. Source Zatrudnienie w Polsce 2007. MPiPS, Departament Analiz Ekonomicznych i Prognoz

  • fig-3-income

    Figure 3. wage growth for occupational groups in Poland. Source Rocznik Statystyczny 1997 and 2009, respectively

  • fig-4

    Figure 4. Changes in real wages with respect to education and professions in Poland.

  • fig-5

    Figure 5. Median wage (weekly) within different UK regions in 2009, GBP. Source Office for National Statistics

Features Poland. Economic Growth, Income Disparities, and Inequality in a Transition Economy

Over the past two decades Poland has begun to catch up to the wealthier parts of Europe. Between 1996 and 2008, average growth in Poland was 4.6 percent, compared with 2.2 percent in the EU-15. During the crisis year of 2009, Poland was the only EU country to post positive GDP growth. Prosperity has increased, infant mortality has fallen and life expectancy is longer. But income growth has been unequally distributed. There are winners and losers. Today Poland is among the group of European countries in which income inequality is greatest.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds pages 4-10, Bw 2010 vol III:3
Published on balticworlds.com on september 21, 2010

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It was sometime in the mid-1980s. The shops in Poland were emptier than ever. I stepped into a grocery store in Warsaw to interview a woman who stood in the long queue, waiting for a meat shipment to arrive. The woman was desperate, and in an agitated voice, she first hissed, and then shouted into the microphone:

“Vinegar, vinegar, vinegar! Vinegar!”

I never tried to find out why. But during those years, vinegar was the only item that was never missing in food stores.

A few years   after I met the woman in the supermarket, Mieczysław F. Rakowski, Poland’s last communist prime minister, as well as the last first secretary of the Polish communist party, wrote in his diary that the “younger generation throughout the socialist Eastern European countries associate progress with the technology developed in the capitalist countries. This is hardly surprising, considering that all material innovations — from radar, nylon, steelon, TVs, VCRs, jeans, hot dogs, and much more — come from the West.

Meanwhile, among all the words adopted by the international community, our innovations only account for two — sputnik and kozachok. The first word has nothing to do with people’s daily lives and the second is a dance that has become popular in the salons of Paris.”

One year later, on December 11, 1988, Rakowski concluded in his diary: “I am increasingly convinced that the system established in Poland after World War II has lost on a historic scale.” It is “necessary”, he wrote, “to replace it with a new and more efficient system”.

In many ways, Poland’s economic history over the past five centuries has involved constant unsuccessful attempts to catch up with developments in Western Europe. The socialist experiment, which Hungarian economic historian Ivan Berend (now living and working in the United States), aptly entitled A Detour from the Periphery to the Periphery, was just one of a series of such failures.

In the long-term calculations from his book The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective (2001), British economist Angus Maddison presented a few simple facts about this historical development, which apply not only to Poland, but the entire eastern part of Europe and thus, with the exception of Malta, to all the countries that became members of the European Union in 2004.

If the 1950 GDP per capita in Eastern Europe was 46 percent of GDP per capita in Western Europe, a figure largely unchanged since the late nineteenth century and, according to Maddison’s calculations, significantly lower than in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, in the late 1980s it had fallen to below 30 percent of GDP per capita in Western Europe.

For those in Poland who experienced the long queues outside and the empty shelves inside the stores during most of the 1980s, this figure comes as no surprise. It was this economic development, the protests from the people, and ultimately the insight of an enlightened strata of communist rulers, including Mieczyslaw F. Rakowski, about what happened from a historical perspective, that opened the way for a peaceful “dismantling” in 1989 of the “real existing socialism”.

Since then, we in  the former eastern part of Europe — specifically in East Central Europe — have been living in a capitalist world, a part of the world referred to even twenty years after the revolution as “transition economies”, characterized then and now by a neoliberal approach to economic policy. In Poland during the early 1990s, the country’s finance minister Leszek Balcerowicz, along with advisors from the World Bank, left his mark on this economic policy. It was characterized by harsh austerity measures and an almost total liberation of market forces.

As impossible as it was in Poland in the late 1980s and early 1990s to be blind to the devastating gap between East and West, it is equally impossible today not to see with the naked eye the tremendous economic growth that has taken place since 1989.

New malls, new shopping centers, and new residential areas for the expanding middle classes have sprung up, usually with architecture consistent with adaptation to developments in Western Europe. The queues in the big cities now consist of customers waiting in the checkout lines at foreign supermarkets such as Tesco, Billa, Carrefour, and Leclerc, or queues of Christmas shoppers in the large domestic media chain Empik. Empty shelves are just a memory and on the southern outskirts of Warsaw, where friend to Poland and entrepreneur Ingvar Kamprad broke ground twenty years ago for the country’s first large IKEA store, an entire commercial center now sprawls on either side of the highway down to Katowice and the border to the Czech Republic.

The figures speak for themselves. Since 1992 Poland has experienced steady — albeit with cyclical ups and downs — positive GDP growth, which has exceeded growth in the old and wealthier part of the EU (the EU-15). Between 1996 and 2008, average growth in Poland was 4.6 percent, compared with 2.2 percent in the EU-15. During the crisis year of 2009, Poland was the only EU country to post positive GDP growth.

For the first time in perhaps five centuries, over the past two decades Poland has begun to catch up to the wealthier parts of Europe. Germany’s GDP per capita in 1992 was more than three times that of Poland, but by 2008 Germany’s per capita GDP was only twice that of Poland.

Other figures reflect increased prosperity. Infant mortality has fallen from 13.6 per thousand in 1995 to 5.99 per thousand in 2007. Average life expectancy, which in 1990 was 66.3 years for men and 75.3 years for women, was 71.3 years for men and 80 for women in 2008. Although such statistics for Polish men still lag considerably behind that of men living in the West, Polish women now live, on average, as long as Danish women. The positive developments in Poland contrast sharply with those during the same time in a country like Russia, where life expectancy actually dropped.

Perhaps after the fall of communism and with entry into the European Union, Poland has finally managed to break the cycle and start the journey from the periphery in toward the center of Europe.

However, behind the general figures on progress and development lurks another reality underscored by a number of Polish economists and even more sociologists: the increased economic growth has gone hand in hand with increased economic and social disparities.

Some sociologists, such as Kazimierz M. Słom-czyński, Krystyna Janicka, and Irina Tomescu-Dubrow, state that the increasing polarization of Polish society has led to the disintegration of the social structure that existed previously. Other sociologists, such as Małgorzata Leszczyńska, find that the economic gaps between different groups in society are magnified in part by the large number of marginalized people who end up in poverty. Economist Jacek Kochanowicz concludes in one of his studies that increased income differences since the fall of communism have placed Poland among the group of countries in today’s Europe in which income inequality is greatest. Well-known sociologist Maria Jarosz noted some years ago in the introduction to a book about “winners and losers in Polish social change” that “the costs of reform for some social groups have become intolerable”.

It is these growing economic disparities in Polish society that are the focus of this article. As we shall see, the answers to the questions asked are not always simple and obvious.

Communist Poland was poor compared with Western Europe, but a surprising equality could be found within this poverty, and it was only a thin stratum of the relatively large so-called nomenklatura — i.e. those who held posts in society requiring Communist Party approval — who  maintained a normal Western European middle class standard of living. The vast majority of those belonging to the Polish nomenklatura could be found among the general egalitarian population. If any section of society deviated negatively from the average, it was the independent farmers. Three million farmers, often with very small holdings, comprised this class and together with their families accounted for almost one quarter of the total population.

Wage distribution is a recognized measure of the degree of inequality in a society, usually measured by the Gini coefficient, which indicates the deviation from a completely egalitarian society (with respect to income), where a higher number, ranging from 0 to 1, indicates a higher degree of inequality. In Communist Poland, for several decades the Gini coefficient was about 0.25 — approximately the same level as in the Scandinavian countries today. For example, according to OECD statistics, the Gini coefficient for Sweden in 2005 was 0.23 and for Finland 0.22.

Although a slight upward trend was already visible in Poland during the second half of the 1980s, it was not until the economic transformation began in the early 1990s that the Gini coefficient noticeably skyrocketed. In 2001, ten years after the major economic reforms were enacted, it was almost 0.40, according to one study. The Polish Ministry of Labor estimates in its latest report on income inequality in Poland that the Gini coefficient in 2001 had risen to only 0.31 / 0.32, but then continued to rise to 0.35 / 0.36 in 2005.

Regardless of which of these estimates is assumed to be most reliable, currently no economist would contradict the Ministry’s conclusion that, contrary to the many predictions in the early 1990s, “the increase in wage differentials has not slowed in the aftermath of the [shock of] the conversion of the economy in the first half of the 1990s”.

Another common way to measure wage distribution in society is to study the relationship between the salaries of the tenth of income earners who are second-most well-paid and the tenth of income earners who earn the least. This type of analysis divides all wage earners in the country into ten numerically equal groups, where D1 denotes the tenth of the population who earn the least, and D10 is the tenth of the population with the highest salary and D9 is thus the tenth of the population with the second highest salary. Figure 1 shows the relationship between D9 and D1, between D9 and D5, and between D5 and D1 in 30 European countries including Turkey.

The smallest income gap can be found in the four Nordic countries, which comes as no surprise. In contrast, among the seven countries with the largest pay gap, Portugal is the lone exception in a group where the others are new EU members from old Eastern Europe.

Nevertheless, the picture is far from clear-cut with respect to the latter countries. Slovakia is positioned exactly in the middle of the diagram and the Republic did not  strictly follow the Polish  model when switching from a fully state-controlled economy to a capitalist market economy.

However, when analyzing this table, the most important political and social feature is not primarily the relatively large wage differentials in most countries from former Communist Eastern Europe, but rather the change in the time, or speed, with which the large wage gap occurred. In 1989 the relationship between D9 and D1 in Poland was 2.5, which means that people in the ninth decile earned on average 250 percent more than their counterparts in the lowest wage group. In 1996 the relationship was 3.39, and then continues to rise as shown in figure 2.

Noteworthy too, when comparing wage distribution in the different European countries, is that the spread within those groups that earn less than average  is greater in the new EU countries of Central Europe than in the more developed countries of Western Europe. And low-wage earners in countries such as Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, and the three Baltic States are relatively poorer than low-wage earners in the wealthier EU countries.

The extent to which the pay gap has increased in Poland since the fall of communism becomes clearer looking at nominal wage growth denominated in Polish zloty (PLN) for different occupational groups from the mid-1990s to late 2000s; see figure 3.

The first groups in this tabulation increased their wages by about four hundred percent, while other groups rose about three hundred percent. The highest percentage increase in wages occurred in the first group, at 467 percent, almost exactly 400 percent in the two groups compared with an increase of 293 percent among regular workers and 326 percent among skilled workers and exactly 300 percent among farmers, forestry workers, and fishermen. Thus these figures show that income gaps that occurred during the initial “shock” period, the early 1990s, have subsequently increased. A senior supervisor in 1996 earned 1.85 times more than a machine operator, but in 2008 the supervisor’s salary was 2.65 times higher than that of the machine operator.

The diagram of real wages between 1996 and 2006 (figure 4) clearly shows the differences among occu-pational groups and groups with different levels of education.

These figures representing the development of real wages reveal who the “winners” are in the economic race in Poland in recent decades. If the Polish middle class were to be defined today, it would primarily be found among the first three occupational groups in the table: community representatives, local officials, and supervisors, and to some extent in the fourth group, technicians and mid-level personnel. It should be stressed that they essentially share the standard of middle classes anywhere in West European society, including Germany and the Nordic countries.

When studying wage distribution in Polish society, we must remember that these figures refer to the average wage in each occupation. The picture becomes more complete when we look at the spread within groups, and at the geographic distribution of income inequality.

In a survey of 3,500 supervisors in medium-sized companies, the median wage in 2008 was PLN 5,000. Ten percent of these supervisors earned more than PLN 11,300 per month, while ten percent of them earned less than PLN 2,500. The same survey showed a significant difference in wages between foreign-owned firms and domestic (Polish-owned) businesses. Supervisors in foreign-owned companies, within each segment on the income scale, earned about sixty percent more than their counterparts in Polish-owned companies. Thus the median wage for supervisors in this survey was PLN 4,500 in the Polish-owned firms and PLN 7,200 in foreign-owned enterprises. In domestic companies, ten percent of supervisors earned more than PLN 10,000 and ten percent less than PLN 2,200. In foreign-owned companies, ten percent of supervisors earned more than PLN 16,000 and ten percent less than PLN 3,400. The wage gap for supervisors (defined in this survey as a mid-level leader in the company) was significant, to say the least.

The same survey pointed to large regional differences in pay within the same occupational group.

The median wage for the above group of supervisors in Mazowieckie County, which includes the Warsaw metropolitan area, was PLN 7,800 and thus more than twice as high as in Podkarpackie County in southeastern Poland, and exactly twice as high as in Lubelskie County in eastern Poland. Similar regional differences can be found among all occupational groups. A survey covering the tourism and hotel industry in 2009 showed that the median wage in Mazowieckie County was twice as high as the median wage in southeastern Poland.

While on assignment prior to the presidential election in the summer of 2010, by pure chance I personally interviewed two skilled workers with the same job descriptions in the Polish furniture industry. Both worked at CNC machines. The worker who lived in the small town of Przeworsk in southeastern Poland earned PLN 1,700 before taxes, while the one who worked in a factory on the outskirts of the Warsaw metropolitan area earned PLN 3,350 per month.

Therefore regional disparities in Poland (and other countries in the former Communist Bloc) are significantly larger than in the more developed countries of Western Europe. This also applies when comparing Poland with the UK, a country in Western Europe that generally has very a large wage gap [see chart above — här måste man faktiskt kolla med författaren]. Regional differences within the UK are relatively small and basically only the London area deviates significantly from other British regions.  (Figure 5)

However, it is not  only wage differentials between occupations, occupational groups, and between regions that are pronounced in Poland. In order to clarify the pay gap in today’s Poland, the wage scale in each of the different regions also needs to be considered.

All “high-wage” regions, principally including the urban counties Mazowieckie, Śląsk (Silesia), and Dolny Śląsk (Lower Silesia), are in themselves highly differentiated. Smaller cities in proximity to metropolitan areas, such as Warsaw in Mazowieckie County, or Wrocław in Dolny Śląsk (Lower Silesia), have generally participated in economic developments. In contrast, significant areas, sometimes islands within these counties, have been excluded from the economic expansion. Thus, in Mazowieckie County — the most highly paid in the country — the ratio between the average monthly wage in the metropolitan region (Warsaw) and the average monthly wage in large municipalities within the county, such as Radom or Mława, is 2:1. The average wage in the Warsaw metropolitan area is twice as high as in the nearby significant town of Radom and its immediate surroundings, just over 100 kilometers south of the capital.

Exactly the same disparity can be found within rural counties, where wages are lowest. In the large municipality of Leczynski, in Lubelskie County in eastern Poland, the average wage is twice as much as in Krasnicki, a large municipality in the same county. An exception to this rule appears to be Podkarpackie County in southeastern Poland, where large municipalities have the same “poverty line” in common; no significant deviations from the low average monthly salary are to be found in this county.

It can be concluded that the pay gap in Poland since the fall of communism has increased dramatically, giving rise to a completely new social structure. This goes for virtually all countries in the former Communist Bloc of Central Europe. In some respects, developments in Poland over the past two decades have approached the labor market situation found in the US and in a few countries in Europe, including the UK and Portugal. However, when compared with the majority of West European nations, the wage spread is considerably greater in Poland. Economists are probably right who argue that without the increased wage gap, the major economic and political transformations that took place in the early 1990s would not have been possible. Noteworthy with regard to Poland — where a massive labor protest in 1980 and the formation the first trade union independent of communist rule, Solidarity, sparked the fall of communism — is that the differences in society assumed such large proportions. The question that arises is how this transformation — which is related to the social structures of society with increased economic inequality — was able to continue for more than two decades without significant overt protests.

The answer to this complex question necessarily involves many factors of course: the collective consciousness of liberation from the Russian/Soviet empire, the enormously positive perception of the EU (Poles are among the most enthusiastic EU fans in the entire Union), and of course the deliberate liberal economic policies which have dominated for two decades in Poland, regardless of the party in power. All such non-material factors have facilitated the acceptance of the negative implications of the ongoing social transformation. However, let me first point to a couple of more tangible reasons why the wage gap galloped away in the first five years after the fall of communism, and then continued to expand until the present time.

Most Polish studies indicate that education has played a pivotal role in the rise of increased wage inequality over the past twenty years. The modernized economy that evolved after the transformation, often aided by increased foreign investment, required greater access to an educated work force with skills suited to the new economic reality. This mechanism is referred to as Skill-Biased Technical Change (SBTC), which describes a growing demand that at any given moment is not met by a sufficient supply of the type of skilled workers that the new technology requires. Of great importance is the lag that Mieczyslaw F. Rakowski referred to in his diary of the late 1980s, namely that the countries of the former Communist Bloc almost completely missed out on the IT revolution in industry and society that the Western countries underwent in the 1980s.

No matter how formally well-educated a couple of generations of Polish university and college students may have been, they could not adapt to the new demands that took the world by storm beginning in the early 1990s. The new capitalist market economy, created at almost lightning speed, gave birth to new careers in banking and the entire financial sector, including insurance. The statistics previously reported in this essay show that these are the sectors in which wage growth has been greatest and this is where a large portion of the more than twenty percent of the population can be found who in a recently conducted sociological survey were described as either “rich “or “prosperous”.

The fact that other, very large groups in society fell behind at the same time can, of course, be explained by the structural transformation of the economy, which by necessity was initiated after the fall of communism. Outdated technology inexorably led to the demise of large industries. The one-sided and often loss-making investment in coal mining led to tens of thousands of miners losing their jobs when the industry underwent a painful restructuring that has not yet been completed. In some areas of the country the unemployment rate reached thirty percent in the mid-1990s. Massive supply of low-skilled or unskilled workers severely limited wage growth in these groups.

Nevertheless, it must  be considered a paradox that the position of organized labor has weakened for such a long time in a country where the very impetus to the fall of communism was attributable precisely to a far-reaching and well-organized trade union, Solidarity.

One reason for the continued widening of the wage scale in Poland over the past decade must in fact be attributed to the weakened labor movement, which completely failed to achieve central pay negotiations at the industry level that paralleled West European patterns.
Union density, which in the early 1990s was over seventy percent, is now only sixteen percent. In a survey conducted by the large public opinion research center, CBOS, in 2007, only 8.1 percent of respondents in Gdansk said that they belonged to a trade union, of which nearly half belonged to Solidarity. More than 90 percent of respondents in all regions declared that they were not union members.

Consequently, only a minority of the country’s employees works for companies where the employer entered into some form of collective agreement with employees. Almost all existing collective agreements are limited to a single company; in most cases, companies with some form of state ownership. Only three percent of Poland’s workers are covered by collective wage agreements that apply outside their own company. Industry-wide agreements thus do not exist in practice. In most privately owned companies, essentially no collective wage agreements with employees can be found. Instead, private wage determination is applied where the only guideline is the statutory minimum wage annually negotiated in the so-called Tripartite Commission that includes representatives of trade unions, employer associations, and the government. In 2010, the statutory minimum wage before tax is PLN 1, 317 (about € 330) per month for a full-time employee.

According to a survey published by the Polish Ministry of Labor, wages in 2006 were, in the (few) cases that were the result of collective agreements covering more than one company, 17.5 percent higher than in companies without any wage agreement at all, and 7.8 percent higher when collective agreements were reached at the company level. Low union density and the absence of industry-wide agreements have driven wages down for large employee groups in Polish society, while the well-educated in the “new” labor groups have an advantageous individual bargaining position despite the absence of collective agreements. Accountants (usually women) comprise one occupational group that for a long time enjoyed a privileged position in the labor market in large cities since they understood Western European accounting rules, possessed strong skills in English, and were able to use computerized accounting systems. Over time this privileged position disappeared due to increased supply of qualified workers. However, wage trends for women have followed the general trend and the gender gap for wages has not increased since the early 1990s. The wage gap between men and women is ten percent and in this respect Poland is one of the most egalitarian countries in the EU, even more egalitarian than Scandinavian EU countries, where the wage gap is generally relatively small.

The OECD and the EU define the objective poverty line in their statistics as 60 percent of the median income for a family, calculated per family member. In Poland, according to this criterion the poverty line is drawn at an income of PLN 725 per family member per month. In Communist Poland, with low wages and almost non-existent unemployment, a very small percentage of the population fell below the 60 percent median limit, almost exclusively within portions of the rural population.

Today an estimated seventeen to twenty percent of the population lives below the poverty line as defined by EU standards. This figure is not in and of itself surprisingly large and actually does not deviate from the average throughout the European Union; it is even one or two points below the percentage of, for example, Italians, who according to EU statistics fall below the same limit. However, in practice relative poverty does not mean the same in Poland as, for example, in Sweden, where as much as eleven percent of the population falls below the defined income limit per family member (income here includes social transfers in the form of child allowances and social benefits).

Once again, what is so striking in Poland are the significant regional differences, the differences between urban and rural areas, and between large and small cities. Poverty in Poland is thus strongly associated with the structural transformation that began in the early 1990s, with some regions severely affected by the upheaval, particularly those where the economy was based on the great communist state farms and where no or few new investments were made when these farms collapsed in the mid-1990s. For example, according to calculations, in eleven of the country’s sixteen counties at least one quarter — and in four of these counties, in turn, at least one third — of the adult population lives below poverty line. A large portion of the country’s families with children live with the imminent risk of falling below the poverty line, whether in towns or in the countryside, if they have two or three children. Among families in Poland with three or more children, calculations show that as much as 46.9 percent live on an income below the poverty line.

Statistics confirm that relative poverty increased from the early 1990s until 2004–2005 (just after Poland joined the EU), followed by a slow decline.

What is even more symptomatic of this entire period, besides the subjective perception of their own material situation, is that the percentage of families reporting that their income is insufficient to meet their basic needs fell from 74 percent in 1993 to 37 percent in 2005. Other surveys have reported that an increasing percentage of Polish families rate their lives as a whole as good or even excellent. Although the answers to this question are extremely subjective, based on little more than material wellbeing, the responses still indicate that more and more people are satisfied with the overall development of society. In 1993, 53.4 percent of respondents felt their lives were good or excellent; in 2005 this figure had risen to 72.1 percent.

Only a tiny fraction of Poles in 2005 felt that they had failed in life. When asked whether they are “highly dissatisfied” with their material situation today, only seven percent of Polish families answered yes. Even more noteworthy is the fact that, in this case, the percentage difference between urban and rural, between small and large cities is minimal. Ultimately, in survey after survey of all EU countries, the Polish population is most pleased with its country’s EU membership.

Why then did a majority of Poles, without significant resistance, even if some occurred, accept the increased wage gap and inequality that resulted after capitalism was reinstated in the early 1990s?

Obviously I ignore the winners of this enormous social transition in the following observations. No matter how many times I have traveled in Poland on assignment since the transition in 1989, even in the poorest regions, I have seldom or never met that symbolic “woman in the supermarket” from the 1980’s communist Poland in crisis. Of course I have encountered despair and of course people have expressed their bitterness toward politicians and their own fate on more than one occasion. This is just part of life in Poland.

However, it is almost always associated with hope of a better future to come, if not just for me, then for the country and younger generations. It is as though the belief in a better future that communism hailed in its most famous song, without actually taking root among the people or those in power in the Poland of that time, has now gained a foothold across the spectrum of society. It is true that many studies conducted over the past twenty years have demonstrated that a large proportion of the population say they had a better and especially more secure life, with less risk, under communism. But no study in Poland has proven that Poles would prefer to return to the communist system, either political or economic. For now, the Poles are in fundamental agreement with their own modern history.

Only a major crisis in society could shake that conviction.

Moreover, today’s Poland is equipped with a number of “safety valves” to vent discontent – valves that also lessen the poverty and wage inequality reflected by official statistics.

This mechanism obviously includes the black labor market. In an EU survey conducted in 2007, eleven percent of Poles who responded stated that during the past year they received all or part of their pay under the table. The record in this survey was held by the Romanians, where 23 percent of respondents said they work completely or partially under the table. Several studies show that under-the-table wages – in whole or in part — are more common in regions where wages are relatively low. A significant proportion of small Polish companies pay a legal wage according to the statutory minimum wage as well as a “black” wage premium.

No, today we do not  encounter “the woman in the supermarket” from the early or mid-1980s who symbolized the “losers” in the Polish social transformation, but rather a woman I met in June 2010 in Przeworsk, a town in southeastern Poland. She and her family live below the poverty line. With three children and a combined monthly income before taxes of PLN 2,750, they end up well below the line of PLN 750 per family member. And yet she was not in despair. Instead, she quickly asked: would it be difficult for my husband or me to find work in Sweden? Trips abroad, with occasional, sometimes long-term jobs, outside of Poland comprise a basic “valve”. One study shows that, over the past five years, every twelfth Pole has worked abroad.

In some regions the proportion is much higher. Anyone landing at the airport in the relatively modest city of Rzeszow, statistically within the poorest county in Poland, will soon discover that there is a direct flight to New York twice weekly from there. The CEO of the airport told me last year that they plan to open a direct connection to Oslo by 2011. When I asked why Oslo, the answer was obvious:

“Our guys from the mountain villages are working on the oil rigs.”

Work outside the country – and this is even more true since EU membership opened up the labor market in almost all of Europe – represents an important “valve” to cope with unemployment, wage inequality, and poverty in Poland. While this is no long-term solution for Poland’s structural problems or for Polish families, in all probability it allows for a more tolerable standard of living than the statistics reflect.≈


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  18. Andrzej Lubbe, “Transformacja, modernizacja czy po prosto normalizacja? Wybory modelu gospodarki polskiej po 1989 roku” [Transformation, modernization or simply normalization? Choosing a model for the Polish economy], in Witold Morawski (ed.), Modernizacja Polski [Polish modernization]. Warsaw 2010
  19. Iga Magda, F. Rycz , I. Tojerow & D. Valsamis, Wage Differentials Across Sectors in Europe: An East-West Comparison. CEB Working Paper, 09/003 2009
  20. Iga Magda, Wage Mobility in Times of Higher Earnings Disparities. Paper. Warsaw School of Economics (SGH) Nor 2008–10 March 2008
  21. Krzysztof Malag & Paweł Kliber, Konwergencja i nierówności regionalne w Polsce [Convergence and regional inequalities in Poland]. Poznań 2007
  22. Izabela Marcinkowska, Annna Ruzik, Paweł Strawinski & Walewski Mateusz, Badanie struktury i zmian rozkładu wynagrodzeń w Polsce w latach 2000–2006 [Investigation of the structure and changes in the compostion of earnings in Poland 2000-2006]. Departament Analiz Ekonomicznych i Prognoz. Ministerstwo Pracy i Polityki Społecznej. Warsaw 2008
  23. OECD. StatExtracts; Income distribution-Inequality. www.stats.oecd.org
  24. David Ost, Klęska Solidarności Gniew i Polityka w Postkommunistycznej Europie. Warsaw 2007 [Original in English: The Defeat of Solidarity: Anger and Politics in Postcommunist Europe.  2005]
  25. Tomasz Panek (ed.), Statystyka społeczna [Social statistics]. Warsaw 2007
  • http://www.facebook.com/unn.gustafsson Unn Gustafsson

    Thorughly researched and highly informative for me as a reader outside of Poland; thoughtprovoking without being speculative. Thank you.

  • by Peter Johnsson

    Peter Johnsson is a foreign correspondent. Working for Nordic media and based in Warsaw he has covered the countries in East-Central Europe since 1980. He is the author of several books on Poland and polish history.

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