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The Warsaw Voice » Culture » July 30, 2012
Book Review
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Disparities Amid Opportunity
July 30, 2012   
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After nearly half a century of stagnation, isolation, lack of sovereignty and limitations on civil society, the last two decades have opened new, unprecedented opportunities for Poland and its people. But the country’s transition from communism to a market economy has meant a rise in economic and social disparities, writes Maria Jarosz, editor of the book Poland and Its People in a United Europe: Economic and Social Imbalances, published by the Warsaw-based Institute of Political Studies, part of the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN).

The book is a collection of articles by sociologists and political scientists who set out to take a broad look at modern-day Poland and its role in a united Europe with a special focus on economic and social disparities.

“The disparities between people from higher rungs of the social hierarchy and those who have been unsuccessful—not necessarily through their own fault, but due to an interplay of specific situational factors—are widening,” Jarosz, a professor at the Institute of Political Studies, writes in an introduction to the book. She adds that those better off increasingly tend to isolate themselves—in their fenced housing estates in Warsaw and other large Polish cities—from the rest of the population. “We are dealing with a process in which public space is being taken over by wealthier and often elitist groups in society. This is just one of many signs of increasing social disparities,” Jarosz writes.

However, the Polish people have become more pluralistic and tolerant of diversity and of social, moral, religious and ethnic differences. They are quickly embracing an open and multicultural environment, Jarosz says. Stereotypes and resentments are slowly fading away and the increasingly widespread adoption of Western lifestyles and aspirations is becoming one of the most important driving forces behind modernization.

Poland’s resilience amid the financial and economic crisis in Europe is a promising sign that may mean that disparities will be reduced in the future, Jarosz says. “It may be worth believing that the future is not two Polands, but one Poland, with a decreasing number of those excluded socially, economically and politically,” Jarosz writes.

But a belief in a better future is not enough. This belief should be complemented by government efforts to improve the situation of the vast numbers of poor and marginalized people. Economic growth alone does not guarantee an improvement in the quality of life—economic success must be accompanied by structural institutional and social changes promoting the cohesion of societies in a united Europe, the authors say.

One of them, Marek Kozak, notes that, despite its rapid growth, the Polish economy is still insufficiently competitive internationally and lags behind in terms of innovation. Moreover, if institutional reforms continue to be postponed, Kozak says, Poland’s economic growth may decelerate and its key macroeconomic indicators will deteriorate.

Elżbieta Tarkowska, who focuses on poverty in Poland since 1989, notes that there are some characteristic features that set Poland apart from other countries in terms of poverty. These primarily include the fact that poverty in Poland mainly affects the countryside. Moreover, it is a persistent and chronic process that tends to be concentrated in specific areas and regions and eventually leads to social exclusion. Poverty affects many young people in Poland and it also tends to affect women to a greater extent than men, due to factors such as discrimination in terms of income, Tarkowska says. Another distinctly Polish feature is the inefficiency and weakness of institutions tasked with assisting families and individuals stricken by poverty and exclusion, according to Tarkowska.

A chapter by Marta Danecka and Adam Kęska focusing on economic inequality and unemployment shows that, on the one hand, Poland’s unemployment rate has dropped compared with other EU member countries in recent years, but on the other, atypically, women in Poland are in a worse position than men in this area.

In a chapter on corruption, Jarosz observes that corruption in Poland has been shaped by historical factors including the country’s legacy of more than a century under foreign control, German Nazi occupation, the ubiquitous shortages of the communist era, and years of undemocratic rule. Surveys suggest that Poland has high indicators of corruption risk, but hard data from the World Bank indicates that the situation in Poland is not that bad in terms of corruption, Jarosz says.

Poland and Its People in a United Europe was the main topic of an international panel discussion at last September’s Economic Forum in the southern Polish resort of Krynica. The Polish version of this book, targeted at domestic readers, was published in 2010.

Poland and Its People in a United Europe: Economic and Social Imbalances, published by the Polish Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Political Studies, Warsaw 2011, 277 pp.
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