Ryszard lives in Tarnobrzeg, a small town in eastern Poland once known for its sulfur mine and its engineering, chemical, textile, and food industries. In 2009, the mine was shut down and flooded to create an artificial lake in the hopes of spurring tourism. But tourists came only during the two warmest months in Poland. Soon, Tarnobrzeg was in trouble.
Ryszard has a job. But of the 1,500 Polish zloty ($500) he earns every month, Ryszard spends nearly everything on heating and food bills and basic needs, apart from child support for his daughter.
“I try to save every nickel, take extra jobs, so somehow I manage to make ends meet,” Ryszard says. “If, by any miracle, I had more money, I would save it for my daughter. She will certainly need it when she goes to school.”
As a region, Europe and Central Asia faces a unique problem in the form of long, harsh winters. This means families have to pay a lot more to stay warm and eat enough to survive such unrelenting conditions, compared to other, warmer parts of the world. On a daily basis, these costs add up, and $2.50 per person is often not enough. Consequently, many of these families live in poverty.
The World Bank interviewed several families in the region to document the issues that the poor face. While all of them said high heating bills were the biggest problem, they also said that their lives would be much easier if they could find good jobs with steady, even if meager, income.
Young Poles also face high unemployment and, when they do manage to find jobs they are often hired under temporary contract, some of which (known as “junk contracts”, umowy śmieciowe) pay little and offer no stability or social security. As many as 27 percent of those employed are on temporary contracts. As a result they might face higher risk of poverty, particularly if there are women, young or with low skills.
Ryszard, like many other young Poles, is struggling to survive on a less-than-ideal job that does not pay much. Still, he considers himself lucky to have one. Many who don’t, move to other countries in search of employment and a better life.
Almost two million Poles reside abroad for more than three months each year, with about two-thirds living outside the country for more than a year, according to the Poland Statistical Office. Most emigrants are younger than 35, and many come from four of the poorest eastern regions in Poland.
Although the country’s economy grew in real terms by 81 percent between 1990 and 2010, gaps between the poorest and wealthiest regions continue to widen. Poverty remains a real issue, especially for families with many children, youth, seniors, and low-income rural households.
The financial crisis of 2008 resulted in an economic slowdown in Poland, as it did in many other European countries. Unemployment doubled in the past five years to 14 percent. Some 26 percent of Polish households say their regular income is insufficient to meet their needs, while nearly 63 percent of households do not have any savings, according to research from the Polish Statistical Association.
“The good news is that Tarnobrzeg is not a big place – you can walk around town in half an hour,” Ryszard said. “For now I walk everywhere. I try to save a little bit every month to have something to live on. The truth is that my life, no matter how hard I try, is just about survival.”