Myth #17: Poland is poor

No it’s not. It was, 30 years ago. It isn’t now. And even 30 years ago it was pretty similar to, say, Britain in the 1950s. We’re not talking Third World poverty here. There are poor people in modern Poland for sure, and more of them as a proportion of the population than there are in the super-rich nations of Western Europe, but most westerners seem to have a wildly exaggerated view of what this means. The life of the average, working, city or town dweller in Poland is pretty much indistinguishable from the life of his or her British or French or German counterpart. People are most emphatically not walking around in rags or queuing outside bread shops or grubbing for potatoes in the fields. They drive around in shiny new cars, buy iPhones, shop in glitzy shopping malls, and eat out in trendy restaurants.

British people coming to Poland for the first time are often shocked to discover that it isn’t the austere, poverty-stricken place they had been led to expect by the lingering propaganda of the Cold War days. I’ve heard them wandering around the Old Town saying things like ‘Hey, this is just like any other city in Europe’ or ‘This is actually very nice’ in slightly unbelieving tones. I think a lot of them are slightly disappointed.

Could be anywhere in Europe… and it is.


More myths?

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27 thoughts on “Myth #17: Poland is poor

  1. some dude says:

    Before some idiot comments on this, arguing that some 300% of Poles are starving and can’t get a loo to piss in, I want to state my opinion.

    Yes, Poles are living in comfortable conditions. Yes, we enjoy decent internet connection, good food, nice books and quite modern electronics equipment.

    However, the wages are still barely bearable (excuses for the pun) for some of the Poles, and they are important and vocal part, like doctors or teachers.

  2. island1 says:

    Some dude: I think this gets to the core of what I was trying to say. A lot of people in the West imagine that Poland is still some grim Stalinist boot camp where people are scrambling for the bare essentials of life; you and I and everybody who has ever been here knows that’s not the case.

    Yes, a lot of people, especially in sectors such as education or health, should get a lot more; but I’m afraid I’ve been hearing the same thing, equally justifiably, in the UK for the past 30 years.

  3. scatts says:

    I agree there is not the poverty here that some people expect but I do think the situation for the general population is a lot worse than you you make it sound.

    I think there are two Polish traits that combine to give you this impression;

    1. Poles who have wealth, enjoy showing it off. A bit like the Russians only with more class.

    2. The Poles who have almost nothing are very adept at making their situation look better than it really is. They are also more tolerant of their situation than a Brit in similar circumstances would be.

    In the big cities especially, I look at the cost of things, at the bills that comes through my door, at the price of medicines, of haircuts, of mortgages, of holidays, of everything and then I look at what many people here are paid (2,000 PLN per month or less) and I have absolutely no idea how they do it.

    How many Poles bring their own lunch to work every day? Are they doing this primarily because they enjoy home cooking or because they can’t afford to buy lunch? Sure, they look happy & well fed, they all gather round and have a natter, it’s all very quaint. Look at the UK by contrast, how many people still take sandwiches to the office? In London there’s a cafe, pub or restaurant every 10 yards and every single one of them is heaving at lunchtime & after work. Poles just don’t have that kind of disposable income.

  4. darthsida says:

    => some dude
    you’re an idiot
    (which doesn’t have to be true but what would you expect when you start comments the way you do above?)

    => island1

    1. since you mention education and health, the myth you contradict would be “some (most) of Poland is poor”. To tell us how some / how most, you’d need to go on with some stats, the more of them the better. But you just get away with a pic. Well, a photo of some French royal interior just before the Revolution and its rule of the guillotine — might flash the same title: “Could be anywhere in Europe… and it is.”.

    2. logics: “UK for the past 30 years” implies only that the situation is similar in Poland and in the UK. It cannot be said, however, whether it means both countries are rich, or that both countries are poor. And that’s all only when the UK / Poland comparison is true — and not just a grapevine meme you’d like to share with us.

    => scatts

    1. In “2,000 PLN per month or less” the “or less” part should be bold-faced, especially if you mean net cash in hand, not gross thing in your tax return.

    2. Speaking for myself: I can afford having my lunch ‘outsourced / catered in’, but still take my own to work every day, and call it my breakfast. But consider first whether lunch is a part of the local eating culture. Analogy: one could afford a geisha’s kimono, but why buy it when it’s outside the local culture to wear it?

    => General Anyone

    By saying poor / rich, do you dress in words your observations from the streets? Well, your vision may vary. Or are you more of a statistician? If that’s that, do you think gross available income? Or net discretionary income? Well, maybe I know just too many people that don’t fit in your image. But please be aware that telling the poor(er) that they’re not poor(er) is [to use an euphemism] irritating, or at best boring. Not too gentlepersonly, anyway.

    The fact that we’re internet users and have time to write things — means we don’t keep in touch with the less fortunate now and here. Well, when I go back my place, I see, hear, meet the less fortunate. Do you? Instead of “British people coming to Poland” explain the reason for “Polish people coming to Britain”. (It’s a rhetorical issue, naturally.)

  5. scatts says:

    darth, don’t agree with Kimono / lunch analogy. Poles do have a pretty strong culture for eating lunch, eating generally at all times when their mother told them they should eat!

    Try this – tell everyone in your office that the company is paying for their lunch from now on and see how many still bring their own!

    Mind you, that has its own problems as it plays to the other Polish trait of taking any offer that’s available and abusing it. :)

  6. some dude says:

    2000 or less? If I get lucky, my wages as a teacher will be as high as 1100 zlotys. I can get by with that, provided that I won’t spend money for retirement or set some money aside, or have a vacation.

    Of course, I could do some additional work, to get my earnings to 2000 thousands, and I probably will. But, really, Poles get a lot of things for free: libraries, medical care. I won’t complain, since I believe in myself, and I know that I will get a better job someday.

    And I am pretty sure that I am a representative of what I could call “my generation”, if it wasn’t so vague.

  7. guest says:

    All island wanted to say is that Poland is not as poor as many Brits would think. And he is right. But of course many Poles are still relatively poor. The reason why you do not see it is that the parents/grandparents help the young families a lot. Very often they even live together in one apartament…

  8. darthsida says:

    => scatts
    Lunch is not a Polish thing, the very name tells us so. And I’m not sure I get your point: ask my boss to sponsor my breakfast (I don’t eat lunches)? But why? To see that (s)he’s rich enough to agree, to see that I’m poor enough to ask, or to see that I’m greedy for things free. (And then, “there’s no free lunch”, as we know.)

    => some dude,
    in other words you’ll afford 0.14-0.16 m2 of your living area a month. But you’ll have to deduct some money for medical care, still. It can’t – thus isn’t and won’t – be free.

    => guest
    We seem to know (or guess) what the author meant. It’s not that bad, he means, not as bad as one might think in the UK. But being as general as here, we could say Poland was never poor, because at any time we’d find some starving kids in Africa.

    In my definition, any country in which major life choices such as whether to live in the country, whether to have children, what to study etc. – are made (negatively) dependent on the country’s building stock — is poor.

  9. scatts says:

    darth, you’re being obtuse and pedantic. Call it second breakfast, obiad or lunch they sure as hell do eat something roughly in the middle of a working day. They do in Warsaw anyway.

    My point was that if they felt they could spare the money, a significant percentage would not be dragging in plastic boxes full of food and wearing out the office microwave.

    I think I’d define ‘poor’ relative to other EU countries, after all, that’s where we are. I’m willing to bet that Poland is a fair way down the list when looking at income compared to expenses.

  10. darthsida says:

    One can have breakfast, 2nd breakfast, brunch, lunch — and elevenses if you’re hobbit(like). For people I work with, “the middle of a working day” is 10 a.m. It’s high time for second breakfast (made the night before) — usually sandwiches — nothing to harass the microwave with. In fact it’s oft the first breakast — one may not feel like eating at 5 or 5.30 a.m., the ante -dawn dead of wintertime night. That one I’d call the 6-to-2 model. Or the 7-to-3 model, a variation. You leave your factories and offices at 2-3 p.m. and hurry to do shopping, cooking and more.

    Your point about plastic boxes would mean money might be the key factor. (Indirectly indicating that Poland is, well, poor.) Yes, I heard about Poles who can help themselves at the smörgåsbord tables until they burst, economizing on future meals they have in advance at once — but never seen one. Until proving guilty, it’s just an urban legend. I don’t think that when sponsored a meal, the Pole would automatically go for it. Time is crucial here, I suspect, not money. (ZUS closes at 14.00. Tax office is open till 18.00 one weekday only, othertimes it’s, what, 15.30? Kindergartens close way too early for a parent to be able to enjoy lunches or anything that would postpone their leaving the workplace.)

    What you describe, I suppose, is the 9-to-5/6 model, yes, probably with its lunch break, and business dinners, and kids in private facilities, or with kidsitters, the way we see in fancy American movies. In that model, suppers are served at times what Poles would call night and in restaurants Poles would not imagine themselves rich enough to enter. Not yet. So when I mentioned there may be a cultural gap, it wasn’t that I’m pedantic.

    I don’t know which model is prevalent in Warsaw, as last time I was there we had Communism.

  11. Pawel says:

    guys I think you’re still missing one point,

    you can be rich and still want to save money.

    look at Germans. do they splash cash on lunches? they’d rather save it and spend on high-end appliances, homeimprovement, holidays etc. Why would you spend cash insensibly? You can easily make your self lunch and save few euro/zloty. It’s tastier, healthier, and you know what’s in it.
    Look at the owner of IKEA (whatshisname). He never flies business class even though he can afford. Drives an old car. I’m sure he brings packed lunch to work:)

  12. mochafueled says:

    Just curious does Poland have a stock market?

    What is the polish version of the Rolex (if one)? ie their bling bling .

    What is the Polish status car….? Or is it a nice horse and coach…

    Finally what is the official work week in hours? 15 like France or 40 like America?

    When will Poland go to the Euro and how will that effect the cost of goods?

  13. darthsida says:

    Hi Mocha, allow me:

    1. Yes, there is: WSE.

    2. Rolex? What’s that? No, seriously, there are 2 myths (legends) concerning watches in Poland I can think of: 1) Soviet barbarians used to appropriate (steal) watches from anyone in 1944-45, 2) Polish patriots of the wartimes used to donate their watches, jewellery etc. to fund a cannon or a tank. Nowadays, the former president, A. Kwasniewski is said to have quite a collection of expensive watches, so watch him.

    3. Car? Check this youtube out.

    4. 40 hours is justice for all. Some groups – teachers, for example – (are believed to) work less, though (in fact they probably) work more. Doctors have to work, like, 120 hours if they want to make ends meet.

    5. When ‘they’ (it’s always some ‘them’ vs ‘us’, so think IMF, WB, WTO and their local lackeys) decide it’s time. The effect will be German-like: there will be moaners that prices went up (and they’ll be about right).

  14. island1 says:

    What a lot of commenting for such a simple post!

    It really was just my intention to say that Poland is not poor in the way that many westerners imagine it is poor.

    I know a lot of people live on little and that the section of society that can afford luxury goods is small compared to the UK. My point was that it’s just a matter of degree, it’s not a completely different league as, say, Ethiopia is. Many people in the UK imagine that it is.

    And we shouldn’t overlook the fact that there are millions of people in the UK who struggle to get by on the bare minimum too.

  15. scatts says:

    darth, you really do need to visit Warsaw again, soon, and I probably need to visit the very strange place you live.

    Please don’t assume that everyone in Warsaw working 9-5 is straight from an American movie, has private przedskole, business dinners, kidsitters or does not have the same time issues with ZUS/tax office etc as others have. In fact we have bigger problems because we can’t take the afternoon off! It’s not a different planet you know… ;)

  16. martiga says:

    island1 I generally agree with your point. And I must say that many people in the UK do imagine we are some post soviet country where you can adopt an orphan from ;) Last year I worked in a bar in Manchester and I saw this pity in most peoples eyes when learnt where I was from. As if they felt sorry for me. One women even told me that I should stay in England and never go back because of the notorious human trade in Poland..
    Still the British aren’t as bad as Americans ;)

  17. scatts says:

    Agreed that Brits have an over inflated ego and sense of their own superiority, which might lead them to feel sorry for you.

    I think it was this line that made me speak up:

    “The life of the average, working, city or town dweller in Poland is pretty much indistinguishable from the life of his or her British or French or German counterpart.”

  18. michael farris says:

    Very many Polish people _feel_ poor and ‘facts’ won’t change their mind about that.

    The expression “normalny kraj”(normal country) says it all (hint, that expression is _never_ applied to Poland.

  19. island1 says:

    Martiga: I know, British people are horribly ill-informed about the reality of Poland. On the other hand Polish people are also a bit vague about what the ‘wealth’ of western Europe actually means. Mix, meet, travel, say ‘hello’; it’s the only way and, thank heaven, it’s happening in spades these days. I love it :))))

  20. island1 says:

    Scatts: I knew it was a phrase that might provoke comment, but I really think it’s true. Ok, not in every respect, but the point is that people in Poland are doing alright, they don’t need the kind of pity that often seems to be directed towards them (obviously you know this).

  21. island1 says:

    Michael: “Normalny kraj” Bingo, you just gave me the title for my next post! I know exactly what you mean… possibly.

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  25. Marek says:

    Most Poles seem to be programmed to bleat about how poor they are, how much this costs and how little a pension they have blah blah blah.

    Don’t ALWAYS believe it. My non-related “aunt” in Radom is always telling us how much medicine costs, how much the phone costs etc and then we find out she goes once a week to a beautician, or to have a massage or even has a brand,spanking new bathroom suite fitted.

    Another friend in Czestochowa works two jobs. Again they have “no money” yet they have a dzialka that I would give my right hand for here in the UK. They also have two properties in Wroclaw !!!

    This brings me onto Polish property prices. I used to love being driven around the country by my friend so I could watch the towns we drive through and think to myself, “I could buy that if I wanted”. Those days are now gone. Polish property prices are seriously high and are generally equivalent to UK prices in the cities. How do people afford them? How do they afford the mortgage repayments ??

  26. Anonymous says:

    Of course, Poles compared to Germans or other Westerners may look poor. However, it is not this kind of poverty that can be seen in a poor African or Asian country.
    Also, signs of poverty, e.g., slums, typical for countries on the same level of development as Poland, e.g., Mexico, don`t exist here.
    Look how poor people live in a big city in Poland.

  27. Dawid says:

    To come back to the question of lunches at work for a while – lunch break is simply not customary in Polish jobs. People usually work 8 hours straight with just one short break – barely long enough to eat a sandwich, let alone go out for lunch! – and when they finish they go straight home to have a meal with their family. It’s a matter of customs. If the customs change, if lunch breaks become common, then this culture will probably change. But for now it’s still not the case and not the indicator of poverty.

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