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Ensuring Inclusion: Lifting 1.5 Million People Out of Poverty in Poland

May 15, 2014

  • Ewa, an unemployed mother of six, and Zbigniew, a homeless man, are two of the millions of people who remain poor and excluded in Poland, despite significant economic progress in the country over the last two decades.
  • Poland is committed to lifting 1.5 million people out of poverty and exclusion by 2020.
  • The need for a new approach that is more holistic in nature and reflects the multiple disadvantages that excluded people face is currently discussed by the World Bank with Polish and EU counterparts, based on a recent World Bank diagnostic study that was just completed.

Ewa is an unemployed, single mother of six living in Bieszczady, in Southeast Poland. Her lone source of income is a meagre alimony payment resulting from her divorce after 12 years of marriage. Ewa is able to supplement this income with some additional benefits provided by the government, but nonetheless often finds it difficult to even provide enough food to feed her family. Today, Ewa is working as a cleaner at a local school as part of a six-month long internship program, but the prospects of a job from this work remain very unclear. Social stigmas stemming from her divorce, inadequate social institutions, and difficult domestic responsibilities are combining to increase Ewa’s social exclusion and are driving her further into poverty.

Some 300 kilometers to the North, in the town of Miechów, Zbigniew is also suffering extreme poverty and increasing social exclusion. Zbigniew is a 46-year-old man who has lived on and off the street since losing his job and his home following the collapse of the communist regime in Poland more than 20 years ago. Although he, too, has benefitted from some social programs in the country and is able to secure work from time to time, Zbigniew nonetheless feels trapped by his situation – unable to secure housing without a job and unable to land a job without a permanent address.

“It’s a limitation of civil rights,” says Zbigniew, “nobody cares about the homeless.”

While Poland has made significant progress in helping excluded populations around the country integrate into mainstream economic activities and benefit from ongoing economic growth, the stories of Ewa and Zbigniew are reminders of just how much work is left to be done. As part of a broader European Union flagship initiative aimed at increased economic and social inclusion for 20 million people by 2020, Poland has committed to help lift 1.5 million people out of poverty in the country and increase inclusion for these individuals. Two fundamental components necessary to meet this goal, however, are increasing information about socially excluded groups and improving ongoing initiatives aimed at addressing the needs of the excluded – whether they be unemployed single mothers, homeless men, or an unprotected employee working on an unstable contract that could end at any moment.

“Lifting people out of poverty in Poland today is more difficult than 20 years ago,” says Rob Swinkels, Senior Social Development Specialist at the World Bank and lead author of a new report on social inclusion in Poland, “the problems that continue to hamper the progress of those who still have not escaped poverty and exclusion are deeper and their situations more complex than in the past. As such, we need to really do some new thinking and design a new approach to these problems and this situation.”

Swinkels, along with a research team from Jagiellonian University in Poland and other experts, set out to assess the current situation in three regions in Poland by identifying those groups that the local population and government and NGO experts believe to be socially excluded, pinpoint the driving factors of this exclusion, and determine what social inclusion interventions are perceived to work well and which ones are thought to be less successful and why. . The result of this analysis is the recently launched “Toward Greater Social Inclusion in Poland” report, which offers concrete recommendations for tackling social exclusion in a more effective manner.Fieldwork for this new study included 18 focus group discussions with 225 excluded people, 30 interviews with officials, and 9 case studies of individuals

The report suggest that a new approach – one that is more holistic in nature and reflects the multiple disadvantages that excluded people face – is necessary to improve upon the successes and learn from the failures of ongoing social programs in the country. Recommendations from the report include the need to raise political attention to social exclusions, design a multi-sectoral approach, strengthening diagnosis at the municipal level, involving excluded people more in the design of inclusion programs, improving transparency around eligibility rules for social benefits, reduce stigmatisation by officials in charge of social benefits, improving care facilities for children and the elderly, making EU-funding programs more flexible, and many others.

With the infusion of a new EU funding cycle in Poland - and part of these funds earmarked for tackling social inclusion - the findings and recommendations from this report are particularly relevant. By taking a new approach, based on the successes and failures of the ongoing approach, policymakers in Poland are working to ensure that even more people are lifted out of poverty over the next decade than in the last – helping Ewa feed her family Zbigniew find a home.