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Exploring resilience with families: this study brings the voice of families to the fore on need for a more robust approach to supporting families

The concept of social resilience refers to the complex processes of responding to, but also becoming resilient to, unfavourable social, political and economic conditions in which people live. 

What are the responses, adaptations and transformations of European families struggling with the challenges of a changing labour market?

A research project funded by the European Commission under the Horizon Europe programme is dedicated to answering this question. It is a research project carried out by a consortium of universities from Sweden, the UK, Spain, Croatia, Belgium and Polish team – LabFam, led by Prof. Anna Matysiak, PhD.

“Social resilience is more than an effective adaptation to the conditions in which we live. It assumes that, in response to unfavourable circumstances, we can make positive transformations of our lives and also protect ourselves against further crises in the future,” Prof.Anna Kurowska emphasizes. “The first stage of our project were Focus Group Interviews conducted in each of the participating countries.  They allowed us to make a preliminary diagnosis of the problems faced by families in these countries and to identify the ways in which they deal with these problems. 

The research in Poland was conducted in spring 2023 in cooperation with IPSOS Sp. z oo. The research included 70 people from families with difficulties in reconciling paid work with caring responsibilities. “Participants were selected from low-income families, single parents, families living in rural areas, families from migrant backgrounds, families where women are the main breadwinners and families where an elderly person was cared for,” Prof. Kurowska explains. In Poland, a total of seven interviews were conducted in Warsaw, Łódź, Łomża and Lublin.

Income insecurity, poor employment conditions, including working on precarious contracts, and the rapidly rising cost of living were key challenges faced by respondents.

A significant proportion of the interviewees declared the need to undertake a range of paid work: in addition to their main employment, the interviewees took on additional jobs  – as they themselves described it – ‘outside the system’ (e.g. baking cakes for others, cleaning or performing beauty treatments). 

Interviewees were aware that having to work for up to a dozen hours a day, often 6-7 days a week, negatively affected their family relationships, especially time spent with their children.

Thus, it was not only financial resources that were a scarce resource in the families surveyed; the time resources available to the respondents also often proved to be scarce – mainly due to the need to combine paid work in many places with unpaid work at home, especially that related to care.

The most important aspect of the respondents’ lives was the family. Closer and distant family were a key part of the informal support system. For parents working full-time in smaller towns, grandparents were an essential support.  It also happened that older siblings were involved in caring for the youngest.

In the respondents’ statements, it was clear how much the norms associated with traditional gender roles determined the division of household responsibilities. In all families, including those in which the sole breadwinner was a woman, responsibility for the family and children rested primarily on the shoulders of women. 

Participants in the study struggled with access to crèches, a family doctor or a specialist doctor. They pointed to the high cost of these services, but also to other barriers to using them (mainly very long waiting times for medical appointments). 

The respondents’ statements were characterised by a general distrust of the state and dissatisfaction with how public institutions work and with the level of support from these institutions. Respondents felt that the system works for other (social groups) and not for themselves.

However, most interviewees emphasised the important role that the so called Family 500 plus benefit plays in their financial resources. In spite of this, some interviewees pointed to the link between the amount of social transfers and inflation in Poland.

Although they themselves appreciated the fact of receiving benefits, they were critical of the government’s social policy, pointing to the lack of investment in care services. 

The survey was also carried out in a group of migrants coming from Ukraine. Ukrainian families experienced similar problems and challenges as Polish families. However, they were more affected by the problem of low-paid work. Some respondents worked below their qualifications, often through temporary employment agencies, earning only minimum wages. 

Ukrainian respondents pointed to experiences of direct or indirect discrimination on the labour market and in the place of employment. “This means, among other things, falling into niches on the labour market (e.g. a manual worker on a construction site, a cleaner or a caretaker in private homes), which become a trap – it is difficult to be promoted or to find more attractive employment,” notes Dr Kamil Matuszczyk of the Centre for Migration Research at the University of Warsaw, who acted as an observer during the focus interviews.

“Although the interviewees were mainly immigrants who had already arrived in Poland by February 2022, they emphasised the impact of the war in Ukraine on their current situation – this includes both financial transfers to their families in Ukraine and the increased presence of Ukrainians in Poland,” – Dr Matuszczyk adds.

Housing was also a particularly problematic issue for respondents, especially the rising cost of living, including rent and energy carriers. Families surveyed indicated that they had to spend an increasing proportion of their monthly income on housing. Taking out a housing loan, despite government programmes, was beyond the means of most of them. 

Ukrainian interviewees pointed to examples of discrimination when renting flats. In their experience, Poles are reluctant to rent flats to them or raise rental rates noticeably.

The families surveyed, experiencing a particularly difficult financial situation, implemented various saving strategies in their daily lives. 

These ranged from preparing home-cooked meals (including baking bread, smoking meats), to buying products onsale, to using apps that enabled people to get second-hand items at a low price. Interestingly, reaching out to non-governmental institutions or church organisations for help was rare.

So how do Polish and Ukrainian families in Poland cope?

The social resilience of the families surveyed mainly boiled down to effective adaptation to existing conditions through: 

-different saving strategies, 

-taking advantage of additional, temporary income opportunities and  

-informal support within close and extended family.

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