After an increase in the number of births in 2016 and 2017, which the government attributed to the introduction of family allowances for the first time in post-communist Poland, the birth rate began to fall again in 2018. That trend was confirmed in 2019 and again in 2020, according to figures just published by the Polish Statistical Office (GUS). In parallel with a rising mortality rate, Poland thus lost, excluding migration flows, about 122,000 inhabitants in 2020, and officially had 38.268 million inhabitants at the end of the year.
Mortality on the rise due to the pandemic and health policies
Polish mortality jumped in 2020 with some 477,000 deaths, about 70,000 more than in 2019, and an absolute record since the Second World War. The increase in mortality was most pronounced in the fourth quarter, with 60% more deaths compared to the fourth quarter of 2019. In parallel with these 477,000 deaths, there were 355,000 live births. Population growth was therefore negative and amounted to –0.3% in 2020, versus –0.07% in 2019 and –0.06% in 2018.
With regard to mortality, it would be wrong to blame the entire increase on the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. As of December 31, the cumulative number of deaths attributed to coronavirus was 28,556. Since the beginning of the century, between 360,000 and 410,000 people have been dying in Poland each year, with an increasing trend, due to population aging, of barely 2,500 additional deaths per year on average until 2019. After subtracting the number of deaths attributed to the coronavirus and this average increase, there remain nearly 40,000 excess deaths, which can be explained in two ways. They may be Covid-19 victims not counted as such because they were not tested. But for the most part they are probably victims of the authorities’ policy of reducing visits to medical facilities to a minimum and postponing “non-urgent” medical procedures. If this is the case, it is likely that the sharp increase in the number of deaths observed in November, which some attribute to the health care system having been put on hold in the spring, will continue in 2021 because of the ongoing difficulties in getting access to health care in Poland for both Covid and non-Covid patients.
Birth rate down despite the “500+” program
On the births side, the record year will have been 2017, with 402,000 live births. It was the only year of population surplus in the decade, and the first year that the number of births exceeded 400,000 since 1998. Births increased from 369,000 to 402,000 between 2015 and 2017, then fell to 388,000 in 2018, 375,000 in 2019 and, as mentioned above, 355,000 in 2020 – less than before the introduction of the “500+” family allowance program.
To find out more about the pro-natalist policies implemented in Poland and Hungary,
see “Child benefits alone will not reverse the population decline in Hungary and Poland, as the examples of Germany and France show”.
So much so that, for the first time in 2020, the government of Mateusz Morawiecki stated in a document that the objective of the “500+” family allowance program was not to increase the birth rate, but to reduce poverty and mitigate the decline in the number of births. In 2016, Prime Minister Beata Szydło had instead stated that the aim was to encourage Poles to have more children and to achieve an increase in the number of births. But it is also true that in her government’s official document on the expected consequences of the “500+” program, the forecast was for a slow increase in the number of births to 380,400 in 2019, then a stabilization in 2020, and then a gradual decline.
The reason for this is that the number of women of childbearing age is rapidly decreasing in Poland, and PiS’s natalist policies are coming late. Between 2015 and 2019, the number of women of childbearing age declined by more than 250,000. In 2019 there were 8.9 million such women, and according to GUS population forecasts published in 2014, there will be only 5.79 million in 2050. The problem is that instead of increasing, the fertility rate is also decreasing. After having increased from 1.289 to 1.453 children per woman between 2015 and 2017, it declined to 1.435 in 2018 and 1.419 in 2019.
The government and PiS politicians nevertheless point out that, compared to the GUS forecasts published in 2014, the birth rate is still higher than forecast, and that this is largely due to the “500+” program. In any case, the further decline in the number of births in 2020 confirms that family allowances alone cannot reverse the demographic decline in Poland, as is the case in the whole of the former Eastern Bloc.