Family Policies: Poland (2014)

Until it ended in 1989, the communist regime in Poland pursued two seemingly contradictory strategies: women were encouraged to work (maternity leave was short and parental leave was unpaid until 1981), but they were also expected to combine their activities on the labour market with domestic duties. The general expectation that fathers would not share household chores and childcare responsibilities with their female partners was additionally fostered by increasing state support for childcare services and an expansion of the availability of childcare places, especially for children under the age of three (Saxonberg and Szelewa 2007).

After the political and economic transformation of 1989 many of the regulations concerning families were inherited from the socialist regime however further amendments were influenced mostly by the new ideology and less by the actual demographic changes. The philosophy of constructing a new family policy was initially, at the beginning of the 90’s, based on the “parent’s rights to raise and educate their children” which in practice meant making families responsible for their well-being and limiting the responsibilities of official institutions. Furthermore, responsibilities related to social and family policy were delegated to local (regional) governments which did not have sufficient resources to continue funding existent regulations. As a result, financial support for families was decreased, funding for childcare institutions was limited which led to closing preschools and nurseries or increasing payments for childcare. In addition, as a result of economic hardship, market instability and ongoing privatization processes, the role of work institutions was largely limited. Before 1989, plants (zakłady pracy) owned preschools, nursing institutions as well as recreational institutions or sport facilities – majority of those was privatized or commercialized. As a consequence, parents could no longer affords such services.

Difficult economic situation in the country, together with raising unemployment, hyperinflation and the crisis of public finances led to the decline of well-being and the quality of life of many families. The family policy system did not respond to family needs and new risks. A first shift in the family policies can be observed after 1994, when the government – concerned with deteriorating situation of families and spreading poverty – begun working on a new family policy program, which was supposed to protect the poorer families. However, new propositions for family policy were strongly rooted in the ideological premises of the political party in power – when a rightwing party was in power, government tended not to intervene in families’ lives claiming it is a private sphere very much dependent on individual preferences and choices. When a leftwing party took over the parliament, more focus was on helping the families in performing their basic functions. 

This situation continued until 2001. Between 2001 and 2002, the first Demographic Congress of Poland was organized to discuss demographic changes in Poland at the doorstep of XXI century. The talks resulted in proclaiming a declaration in which the members of the Congress turned to political powers, public and civil institutions as well as to the Catholic Church and other religious organizations asking to actively counteract negative demographic changes. In consequence, the government announced a new scheme of family policy regulations in 2003 (which – surprisingly only limited the access to support for the families, please see the family allowance section). After 2003, new amendments to family policy system aimed at helping families in the work-childcare conflict: increased funding for preschools, new forms of care services for children less than two years old and changes in the labour code offering parents longer work leaves and introducing paternity leave. The changes after 2003 can be characterized as a marginal step towards a more generous financial support and towards helping dual-earner families and promoting more equal distribution of childcare responsibilities among partners. The biggest changes of recent years took place only at the beginning of 2013, when employed parents were together granted 54 weeks of family leave.


Childcare provision
In its present form, Polish childcare is provided both by public and private entities. However, the majority of childcare facilities (95% of nurseries and 85% of preschools) are operated by the government and are subsidised by municipalities (Plomien 2009). The provision of childcare is also organised differently for specific age groups. Whereas children between the ages of 20 weeks and three years usually attend nurseries, three- to five-year-olds normally attend preschool. Attendance at preschool (“grade zero”) is compulsory for six-year-olds.

Unlike the communist regime, which defined women primarily as workers, and thus increased access to childcare services, the post-1989 governments have incentivised the participation of women in childcare and household tasks (Saxonberg and Szelewa 2007). These objectives have been pursued mainly through cuts in social spending, and through the promulgation of conservative, anti-feminist policies. The commonly held belief that nurseries have a harmful influence on children’s development, which dates back to the communist era, has also played a role in encouraging mothers to stay home (Saxonberg and Szelewa 2007; Fultz 2003). In 1991, the government transferred fiscal responsibility for running nurseries to the municipalities, a step that immediately caused a sharp drop in access to childcare, because the local governments were unwilling to continue the same levels of subsidies. Nursery enrolment among children below the age of three has been falling, while the attendance of three- to six-year-olds has been stable, and even increased after 2005 (however most of the changes take place in rural regions). In 2012 60 to 70% of children aged 3-5 were in preschools depending on the region. A concerning fact is that the cost of childcare increased over time – on average by 22% between 2005 and 2012 (computations done by the Institute of Structural Research for the President’s Office). 

Both public and private service providers face legal barriers to increasing the number of childcare places, as there are strict regulations regarding the organisation of care (Plomien 2009). Currently, both in the public and private sectors, the waiting lists for the few available places are long (according to media reports, about 3,000 children were waiting for a nursery place in Warsaw in 20102). However recent regulations aim at relaxing the requirements of organization of care, in 2012 only 3.8% children under the age of three were in nurseries. This amount is slowly increasing due to the extension of funding for nurseries enacted by the Presidential Office1

This limited access to childcare services, together with the increasing share of the costs that have to be covered by the parents (up to 78%-94% of the minimum basic income in private facilities, without fees for meals and voluntary classes), force many women to choose between childcare and participation in the labour market. Few women can rely on family members to provide childcare, or have the resources to hire a private nanny.

Recent legislation allowing new forms of childcare for children under the age of three (is expected to provide new solutions for both families and suppliers of childcare services, as it will become easier for individuals to provide private services. The issue has sparked heated political and public debates, however not many changes were introduced. The access to childcare for children under the age of 3 is still scarce and private entities charge expensive fees. In the recent years, media have been mostly preoccupied with the reform of the school age. From 2014, all children at the age of six are obliged to go to school. Many parents protested arguing that children are not psychically ready to enter primary school at such a young age and schools are not prepared to provide education for them3.. Protesters even gathered almost 1 million signatures under a petition to overrule the new regulation4.


Maternity protection
The post-1989 reforms regarding maternity leave have had the effect of inducing many mothers to stay at home for a longer period of time (Saxonberg and Szelewa 2007). The current maternity leave offers 20 weeks of leave which can be extended up to six additional weeks with 100% remuneration and up to 26 more weeks (family leave) with 60% remuneration. In total, parents are granted 28 fully paid weeks of leave (maternity leave, additional maternity leave, paternity leave for the father) and 26 weeks of leave with 60% of their salary. It should be noted that during the communist era, mothers were offered 16 weeks of fully paid leave. 

Poland took a clear step forward by deciding to open up maternity leave to fathers. Starting in 1997, mothers were allowed to transfer the second part of the leave to fathers, although this transfer was not permitted before the 14th week of leave, and was fully optional. Thus, while the right to take maternity leave was firmly established, the ability to take paternity leave was conditional on the mother declining a portion of her own leave, which was unlikely given the very young age of the child (Plomien 2009). The next step in the legislative process was the introduction of a separate paternity leave reserved only for fathers in 2008. Fathers have been permitted to take one week of paid leave since 2010, and the period of paid leave will be extended by two weeks from 2012 onwards. The percentage of men who take the leave is, however, still low (about 6% according to news reports, although it is difficult to obtain relevant statistics)3. Most employers are unwilling to accept the right to paternity leave in practice, and discourage male employees from taking a form of leave that, in their opinion, should be reserved for female workers (Saxonberg and Szelewa 2007). 

In recent years, the introduction of family leave (26 weeks, with the benefit equal to 60% of the salary) sparked vivid debates in media and in the society. On one hand, it aims at enabling parents to care for their child in the absence of nurseries or early childhood care institutions. On the other hand, the new system might still encourage only mothers to stay on leave and can decrease the demand for female labor. Firstly, the benefit paid during the family leave is still called “maternity benefit” which can inclines that the mother will use the leave. Secondly, the benefit is paid as a percentage of the salary – given the gender wage gap in Poland, it is highly likely that mothers, who usually earn less than fathers, will use the leave (Kurowska, 2012). In addition, there regulation provides a specific opportunity only for mothers - a woman who petitions for the full 52 weeks of leave (maternity, additional maternity and family leave) shortly after the delivery will be granted a maternity benefit in the amount of 80% of her salary for the whole time of the leave. This is yet again an inclination that the leave is mainly destined for mothers. In regards to female employment, employers now face a greater risk of higher costs of employment when hiring a young woman which can have a negative impact on the demand for female labor and female wages (Kurowska, 2012).Parental leave

To supplement maternity leave, parental leave (urlop wychowawczy) was introduced in Poland in 1968, and remained unpaid until the application of a means test in 1981. After the change, a paid leave period of 18 to 36 months (depending on the child’s health, the type of birth, and the family) was granted, although the maximum duration of the leave was set at three years (until the child reached the age of four). In the years following the passage of the legislation in 1981, both the duration of the paid leave and the group of parents who were entitled to take the leave changed, and the duration of the leave was finally set at 24 months. The amount of the support for parents on parental leave since 1989 remains marginal.

In its present form, the duration of the parental leave and the benefits provided do not differ significantly from the levels that existed under the communist regime (Saxonberg and Szelewa 2007). The means-tested benefit has been set at 400 PLN since 2004, and is normally granted if the monthly per capita income of the family does not exceed 504 PLN (there were few changes in the income threshold – please see the family allowance section). The income level for parental benefit is equal to about 1/3 of the minimum wage in the economy (see the family allowance section). Arrangements of this type discouraged women from staying home. They served mainly as a support for a small group of very low-income female workers, rather than as a universal protection for both male and female working parents with higher incomes (Plomien 2009). As a result, in the period between 1993 and 2000, there was a considerable decrease in the number of persons taking parental leave (from 366,100 to 138,800 (Plomien 2009)). 

Another aspect of the Polish situation is the low share of parental leave taken by fathers. While both parents have the right to take the leave, no period of leave was reserved exclusively for each of the parents4until recently. Since 2013, one month of the parental leave is specifically decicated to each parent . This means that for the first time fathers were granted one month of parental leave to be used only by the father (it cannot be transferred to the mother).In addition, even if both parents are granted a four-month joint leave entitlement (since 2013), only one can claim the benefit. Thus, in most cases, only one parent takes the leave (mainly women, as their incomes are usually lower than men’s (Rokicka and Ruzik 2010)). Apart from financial reasons, men in contemporary Poland are discouraged from taking time off to care for their children by ideological arguments inherited from the communist era that cast women as the primary caregivers (Saxonberg and Szelewa 2007). Recently, concerns have also been raised about the negative attitudes of employers towards parental leave (Kotowska 2008). Employers have generally been very reluctant to allow workers to take parental leave: every fifth woman who decided not to take leave attributed the decision to her employer’s negative attitude towards her staying home (source: GUS 20055). It is therefore not surprising that, in 2004 and 2005, only 2% of fathers used parental leave, compared to 50% of mothers, and that the benefit was paid mainly to mothers in rural areas, and to those with lower educational levels (GUS 20096; also Kotowska 2009). 


Family allowances
Laws that allow workers to collect a family allowance have been in place in Poland since 1947, but major advances in the right to claim a family allowance were made in the 1990s, and continue to the present. Most family allowance benefits are dependent on family income, and have been targeted at families with low incomes (since 1984) and multiple children (since 1991). That approach has been changing in recent years. Since the end of the communist era, the size of the allowance has been gradually decreasing (from 30%-33% of the minimum basic income in the 1990s, to 11% in 1997, and to 8% in 2001-20037). In 2003 major changes in the system of financial benefits for families was introduced. Family benefit is granted to families with low per capita income (below 504 PLN in 2003, below 539 PLN since 2012 and below 574PLN since 2014)8. Additional financial benefits are granted as supplements to the family benefit (e.g. supplement for single parents, supplement for families with 3or more children). This lead to the limitation of the access to financial assistance for families and the decline of the number of family benefit recipients. In 2004, 5.5 million families received these allowances, compared to 5.2 million one year later (Kotowska 2008). By 2008, the number of families collecting the allowance had decreased to 2.6 million families (GUS 2008, p. 879) and continues decreasing  - in 2013, 1.1 million families received family benefit10. 

A family allowance package, even if combined with a carer’s allowance (reserved for disabled children) and a newborn allowance (since 2013 also restricted to families with income per capita lower than 1922 PLN) hardly provides universal support to families in Poland (Kotowska 2008). The system of financial assistance in the country does not treat the family as part of a protected group, at least compared to other beneficiary groups, such as old-age and disability pensioners. Major cuts in family benefits have left working parents, with considerably less support in their efforts to balance family and professional responsibilities than they had received before the 1989 transition from communism to a market economy (Fultz 2003).The family benefits system in Poland can be viewed as a tool preventing poverty rather than a system supporting families in their child-related spending. However, even with this help, Central Statistical Office estimates that about 1/3 of children under the age of 18 lives in families endangered by poverty (estimates for 2010, 2011 and 201311).


The marriage is regulated by the Family and Guardianship Code of 25February 1964 (with further amendments).
Marriage in Poland may be contracted in two ways: 

  • as a civil ceremony performed in the registry office or
  • in a church. 

In order for the marriage contracted in a church to be validated by the law, a marriage certificate confirming the validity of the marriage must be issued by a registry office.

The legal age for getting married is 18 years old, but with judicial approval a woman of 16 years old can get married.

The common property is the type of property regime that constitutes between spouses. Other property regimes are possible upon agreement signed before or after getting married.


The divorce is regulated by the Family and Guardianship Code of 25February 1964 (with further amendments).
The positive prerequisite for divorce the irretrievable and complete disintegration of matrimonial life, which is defined as a lack of any spiritual, physical and economic bonds between the spouses. In the following cases a divorce can not be granted, even in case of irretrievable disintegration of matrimonial life:

  • whenever welfare of the common minor children of the spouse would suffer;
  • whenever granting the divorce would be contrary to the principles of social intercourse;
  • when the divorce is requested by the spouse who is the sole guilty party for the disintegration of matrimonial life, unless the other spouse has expressed his or her consent.

The announcement of divorce (court statement) results in the dissolution of marriage and the separation of common property. When granting the divorce the court also may states if and which of the parties is to be blamed for the termination of marriage. If requested by both spouses the court can refrain from announcing who is to blame. 

In case of presence of any common children aged under 18, the court decides on the custody an the alimony payments. According to one of main principles of the Family and Guardianship Code the standard of live of a child can not suffer in the effect of their parents split up. A spouse who is not granted a custody or, in case of joint custody the spouse who the child does not live with is obliged to pay alimony as long as the child is unable to provide the maintenance himself/herself (usually until the child attends school). The amount of alimony is based on the child’s needs but a parent’s financial situation can also influence the sum to be paid.

The maintenance claims between former spouses - an obligation to pay alimony - can result either from:

  • lack of means (poverty) or
  • from the decrease of the standard of life in a consequence of divorce. – applicable only if the  innocent party demands alimony from a guilty spouse

According to Polish law the spouse who has sole guilt for the breakdown of the marriage cannot claim any maintenance.


The same as the divorce and marriage, the separation is also regulated by the Family and Guardianship Code of 25February 1964 (with further amendments).

The separation was introduced into the Polish legal system in 1999. The regulation is similar to that of divorce. Separation can be decided by the court when there is a complete, but not necessarily irretrievable disintegration of matrimonial life. The consequences of the separation decree are the same a in case of divorce with the exception that a separated person is not allowed to remarry as the separation does not terminate marriage. 


Authors – Contributors  
Anna Rybińska (2014 updates)
Warsaw School of Economics

Anna Szołtysek (2011 version)



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