Social Services System in Poland

Jerzy Krzyszkowski
Institute of Sociology
University of Lodz
Lodz, Poland


Social services is not a term that is commonly used in Poland. Instead, there are two terms in everyday use: social care (opieka spoleczna) and social welfare (pomoc spoleczna). The term social care was formerly official terminology from the time of the first Welfare Act of 1923 to the Welfare Act of 1990.


Introduction of the new terminology relating to social welfare in the new Welfare Act of 1990 was not only for political reasons, to change everything that was in use during communist times (especially since social care had been introduced before the communist system was established), but also to change the whole philosophy of social services. The former domination of social worker and carer over client and the consequent creation of the welfare dependency syndrome was to be transformed into a help for self-help approach, where social welfare was to be a system of temporary support, so that clients could regain their coping skills.


Under the official definition of social services (social welfare) given in the Welfare Act of 1990 it is stated that social welfare is an institution of state social policy designed to provide assistance to those individuals and families who cannot manage their life problems within their own means, capabilities and rights. According to the 1990 Act, social workers can be post-secondary schools graduates attached to the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy or graduates of higher education in the fields of pedagogics, sociology psychology, social policy, or resocialization. In 1999 the total gross expenditure on social welfare in Poland was PLN 12,320.3 million and amounted to 2.0% of the GDP. The social welfare’s expenditure share in the state budget amounted to 7.33%, while in local government budgets it amounted to 10.41%. The largest amount of the state budget money was spent on family benefits, care benefits and educational benefits (48.2%), cash and kind benefits (17.9%), and residential homes (12.4%), and only 0.3 % was spent on home care services. In 1999 there were 904 residential care institutions with 79,000 places. There were 77,700 residents in residential homes (51.5% of them aged 61 or more), while there were 10,300 on waiting lists. The main actors in welfare provision are the centers of social welfare established in each local authority (gmina) under the Territory Self Government Act in 1990, yet local authorities (gminas) cover only 28–29% welfare expenditure while the rest is paid by the state budget. There are approximately 15,000 nongovernmental organizations providing welfare services. Together, they account for 29.6% of all third-sector organizations in Poland.1


Social services organization

Social services are organized and financed by the state, self-government administration and public budget, though they can cooperate with nongovernmental organizations. Social welfare provision consists of both cash benefits and care services for low-income people who are affected by at least the one of the following circumstances: orphanhood, homelessness, children in need of maternal care or parents having great number of children to care for, prolonged unemployment, disability, chronic illness, helplessness in child-rearing and domestic management, especially in single-parent and large families, alcohol or drug dependency, difficulties in adaptation to life after imprisonment, or following natural or ecological disaster. Social services are provided in residential institutions as well as at community level and responsibility for this provision rests on the social welfare centers at local level.


Jerzy Szmagalski has identified the following characteristics of social services in Poland:

  • they are at early stages of development due to limited public resources and a weak voluntary sector
  • they have a tendency towards deinstitutionalization, in the form of the process of releasing social services’ clients from residential facilities so that they can receive from core services through community-based services
  • the combination of distribution of financial aid with other forms of care has led to situations where social services workers’ workloads have been dominated by paperwork, thus negatively affecting the quality of social services provision.2

On the one hand, in order to preserve their popularity, politicians want to protect socialist social privileges. On the other hand, there is a clear tendency towards introducing a liberal system, which means privatisation of many social care services (i.e. residential homes for the elderly). As Miroslaw Ksiezopolski says, there is too much chaos and too few trials to make order in this field. In such a situation a tendency towards privatisation could have unavoidable drawbacks, namely deterioration of accessibility and quality of social services and more selectivity and fewer benefits in social policy.3


The administration reform of 1999 in Poland has been consistent with the policy of decentralization of public social welfare programs that has been widespread in industrialized countries. The first assessments of the administration reform implementation revealed many barriers in the functioning of the reform.


The specification of the tasks for new administrative units has created new opportunities for the organization of assistance for indigents in connection with such factors as decentralization of the system, releasing social services entities from direct subordination to the ministry, and introducing the principle of subsidiarity.


Practical implementation of the reform has encountered difficulties and carries certain threats. These have resulted from insufficient financial resources, absence of executive regulations and low levels of knowledge about and understanding of social services among local political elites, and lack of acceptance of local communities of many social services’ activities. There are also problems relating to the absence of conditions allowing establishment of a uniform system encompassing all partners of the self-government’s social services and politicization of employment positions in social services.


There have been several studies on social services in Poland since 1999. All have showed similar results in terms of social services decentralization. The studies have revealed decreasing welfare state provision in the field of social services (welfare state retrenchment). During the period 1998–1999 there was a 23% cut in central budget funding for rural areas and a 35% cut for urban areas. At the same time, there has been increasing demand for social benefits (74%–81%) 4 and decreasing reliability on the part of local social services agencies. The majority of the latter have not been able to meet their clients’ needs, which has led to hostility among users and carers. However, there have also been positive results of reform, one of them being growing cooperation at the local level among statutory agencies that were once separated as a result of the administration reform (from fragmentation to reintegration). Unfortunately, there is lack of cooperation with NGOs due to lack of regulations and mistrust among public sector welfare managers, and there is exstensive rivatization in residential care with no interest in or power over controlling this process on the part of local welfare authorities. Among weaknesses of new district family centers are insufficient resources and lack of political power to fulfill their role as creators of the local social policy (local strategies of solving social problems documents with no practical implications). Human resources at managerial level have not always been recruited and selected on the basis of professional competence but much more on the basis of political loyalty (tribal democracy). Some (25%) have neither proper educational background nor managerial competency (34%). 5 The situation is worsened by the fact that the inclusion of services for families and children into the social care system so that all social services could work together has not been prepared properly. As a result, staff working in services for families and children have deemed this inclusion as unwanted. Institutional care of children still dominates, and parental and children’s rights have not yet been recognized. It is just the beginning of support for families in the community instead of sending children to institutional care (foster carers instead of group house, etc.). As an unwanted result of administration reform there has been huge growth in bureaucracy and also in the numbers of welfare staff. Unfortunately, growing number of welfare institutions and managers have not been accompanied by an increase in the numbers of social workers or democratization of social services. On the contrary, there has been more hierarchy and increased workloads (paperwork), and subsequently burnt-out syndrome is widespread among frontliners. Empowerment practice has not been introduced, so users and carers have not been able to participate in planning and implementing services at local level.


Summary assessment

During the communist period (1945–1989) social services played a minor role in the socialist welfare state security system based on state enterprise social services. The changes that started with the Welfare Act of 1990 have continued to the present day. They have mainly concerned the philosophy of empowerment that replaced the socialist welfare state paternalism, at least at legislation and central administration level (linking social services with labour instead of health), and the formalization of the state welfare system as a profession in which workers and managers are required to have a formal educational background.


Welfare pluralism, i.e. mixed economy of welfare have become popular form of welfare provision, especially in residential care homes and home care services areas, but effective partnership between state and social partners has not been established. The decentralization of the welfare system introduced in 1999, which has changed the whole social services organization, has also revealed many problems: insufficient financial resources at local level, absence of executive regulations accompanying new tasks, negative attitudes of local political elites to social services, and lack of social capital after 45 years of communism.


The current deinstitutionalization concentrates on family and child care, whereby foster families have become a strongly supported alternative to childrens’ homes .The domination of cash benefits and marginal role of social work as an instrument of social services workers have provoked debates on welfare dependency syndrome and its consequences for society. The criticism of the whole system of social services of being expensive and inefficient while poverty and unemployment are widespread is strongly connected with state budget crises, and neoliberal argumentation has supporters among political elites.


1. All data come from Auleytner, J. and K.Glabicka (2001), Polskie kwestie socjalne na przelomie wiekow, WyzszaSzkola Pedagogiczna Towarzystwa Wiedzy Powszechnej, Warszawa.

2. Szmagalski, J. (2001), ‘Social Services in Poland’ in Newsletter, Observatory for the Development of Social Services in Europe.

3. Ksiezopolski, M. (1999), Modele Polityki Spolecznej, IPiSS, Warszawa.

4. Kaczynska, B. (2000) ‘Pomoc spoleczna po reformie administracyjnej. Konferencja Polskiego Towarzystwa Pracownikow Socjalnych’, (w:) Polityka Sll?eczna 9/2000.

5. Krzyszkowski, J. (2000), Diagnoza problemow spllecznych i inwentaryzacja zasobow pomocy spolecznej w wojewodztwilllodzkim, Osrodek Ksztalcenia Sluzb Spolecznych Uniwersytetu Lodzkiego, Lodz.


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