“Now we don’t have to think twice about every expenditure,” Andrzej told me. “There are some crazy people in PiS … but still, these last couple of years show they actually did something, and our situation is better.”
The populist parties of Eastern Europe are widely viewed from afar as a nasty gang of bigoted nationalists with a thinly veiled penchant for authoritarianism. But critics overlook a key part of their appeal: They have channeled serious money to voters in the name of shoring up the “family values” they say are under siege from secular Europe. These parties, such as PiS and Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, in Hungary, have found electoral success by combining a right-wing vision of society with state largesse. The Family 500+ program in particular, with its catchy title, neat round number, and wide reach, has become a model for other countries in the region, where declining birth rates and immigration of native-born citizens to more prosperous European countries have sparked demographic panic.
Here in Poland, the program has proved intoxicating for large swaths of the population, one that helped garner PiS a decisive parliamentary victory in elections yesterday, winning over not just conservative Catholics, but an array of more unlikely fans, including leftists who felt that PiS, by favoring a model typically eschewed by right-wing parties, offered a compelling critique of a rigged system that left workers vulnerable to the predations of international and local elites.
“They were listening to people like me; they were reading Thomas Piketty,” says Rafał Woś, a columnist for the socialist Catholic weekly Tygodnik Powszechny, referring to the French economist whose agenda-setting book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, argues that wealth could continue to concentrate in the hands of the rich. The book was endorsed by the PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczyński in 2015.
The program’s design—free money, no strings attached—is similar to a universal basic income, and marks a sharp departure from the paternalistic attitude of previous governments, which viewed poor families as “incapable of being in charge of their own money,” says Tomasz Inglot, a political scientist at Minnesota State University who studies welfare states in Central and Eastern Europe.
The universality of the program has even won it grudging plaudits from some feminists, most of whom hold otherwise dim views of the government, which tried to outlaw abortion in 2016 and routinely depicts feminism as a form of “gender ideology” that is poisoning Poland’s traditional values. Agnieszka Graff, a writer, feminist, and professor at the University of Warsaw, notes that Family 500+ recognizes the economic value of caregiving, an acknowledgment that, ironically, could give women more power within their households, even as it may discourage them from joining the formal labor market. At the same time, the program reinforces traditional values that still resonate widely among the country’s conservative voters.