The first thirty minutes of Elzbieta’s day are the most precious.
Between five and five-thirty in the morning is the only time she gets to herself, which she uses to work out, or read a book. After that, the grind of everyday life in Poland’s countryside takes over. She cooks, washes, cleans, irons, and cooks for her seven children, aged two to fifteen. And it doesn’t stop until late at night.
Elzbieta’s family and other families with multiple children are rather unique in Poland, which has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world. When asked why they didn’t have children in a recent country-wide survey, 71 percent of Poles said unstable employment and difficulties in balancing work and family life were big factors.
Their fears are not without reason -- with each child, the risk of poverty increases tremendously -- families with three or more children are more likely to be in the lowest income group, with 26.6 percent of households with four children living in poverty in Poland, according to the Main Statistical Office.
Even buying clothes for children is a daunting task, in such cases. “We have started participating in lotteries organized by local clothes stores, with no luck so far,” Elzbieta said. “We do it because taxes for children’s clothes and shoes were recently raised, and families like ours are most affected. Families with children are just not given a chance.”
Elzbieta talked to me as she picked flowers in a nearby field, while watching her five-year old daughter. The flowers she collected would later be dried on a bench outside her rural home and used for making herbal teas for the family. Even buying tea is a financial challenge for Elzbieta’s family, whose income, a total of PLN 3,280 (about $1,100) comes from social assistance for children, including a disabled child (PLN 2,000) and her husband’s income – after the payment of a home renovation loan – of PLN1, 280.
But hospitality is not to be spared.
Elzbieta was quick to offer our team cold tea in tall glasses -- an offer we did not refuse. She and her husband, a security guard at a bank in a nearby town, are raising seven children in the countryside in eastern Poland, where things are cheaper than in the city.
Still, their limited family finances are constantly stretched to accommodate regulations favoring, in their view, people with no children. “Look at the law on waste disposal,” she said to me. “We select everything and we have a compost bin that helps us utilize most of our waste. Twice a month we dispose the leftover waste, and it is just one-fourth of a plastic bag, but we still have to pay for the waste disposal for nine people. Is it fair?”
Paying gas, electricity and waste disposal bills takes away half of Elzbieta’s household income. The rest has to be carefully used to accommodate food and education bills. In the wintertime, as much as a third of the household budget goes towards gas bills. Paying for heat during long and cold Polish winters is the largest burden on low-income families. Elzbieta counts every penny of her expenses in a notebook. That way, she even managed to save for a roof over a planned extension of their home, but not enough to finish the rooms. She hopes she will finally find a job to do so.
Elzbieta had just started an association of large families, hoping that households with three or more children will have a larger bargaining power when negotiating for things like discounts for multiple children. “In the end we are spending more than anybody else on goods and services, so it would benefit local economies to give us a discount, for example on swimming classes,” she said. “We would send all seven children to a pool, not just one. See, we don’t want to be recipient of social assistance, we are not asking for handouts.”
Elzbieta, a former English teacher, dreams of teaching again, but low birth rates in the past decade, have led to school closures and not as many teachers are needed. She has job offers in Warsaw, but commuting four hours a day is out of question.
“Who would take care of children?” she asked. “Once we are given a chance as a family, not just kept at the bottom of the society, we would like to be able to help others,” she said. “Nothing relaxes me more than teaching neighbors’ children or helping those who are in a more difficult situation than ours.”
Read more about poverty in Europe and Central Asia here.