Poles struggle to 'get by' on $80 a month. Just to fill an average car's gas tank may cost as much as $160
Just how - inquired a visiting friend, staggered by the lowest income levels here - does one ''live'' on $80 a month? Poland is, after all, one of Europe's largest countries, and by no means one of its least economically endowed.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet many of its citizens do, in fact, receive just that or little more. How do they manage?
The short answer is, of course, that one doesn't ''live'' on $80. One simply contrives to ''get by.
After a year of steady decline in the Polish currency's purchasing power, $80 is now worth about 8,800 zlotys - at the official rate of $1 to 110 zlotys. On the ''free'' market, a dollar fetches 600 zlotys.
Official findings and statistics vary. But all indicate at least several million Poles are having to subsist on such low incomes.
Consider the price of food: A kilogram loaf of bread costs up to 30 zlotys; one egg, 18 or 20 zlotys; a liter of milk, 14 zlotys; a kilo of sugar and a kilo of flour cost 50 and 30 zlotys, respectively.
That's only a few cents, cheap enough by most standards. But these are Polish standards, Polish incomes and prices.
Reality - the reality of inflation - strikes home when you look at the less basic commodities needed in an ordinarily modest daily diet.
Tomatoes, which were abundant this spring, were still 400 zlotys per kilo at the beginning of June. Cheese - and not very good cheese at that - is upwards of 300 zlotys. Sausage, a favorite food of most Poles, is 400 to 500 zlotys. Cheaper, inferior meat is from 150 to 200 zlotys. (This meat is the only kind most Poles can afford and accounts for most of their monthly ration of 2.5 kilos per person.)
A little extra - such as good quality meat off the ''free'' market for a special occasion - can cost up to 600 or 700 zlotys per kilo. Even with two wage earners each bringing home $80 a month, a family of four doesn't go to the ''free'' market often.
Maria P. is a hotel worker. She has her own flat, which was bought in better days in the '70s. A son, his wife, and their small child share it with her. It has three rooms, itself a luxury for most of today's Poles. But apart from their bathroom and kitchen, their total living space is still only 30 square meters.
Mrs P. makes just a little more than $80. By doing some extra work, like laundry, she brings her monthly income up to 11,000 zlotys ($88), which is as much as her son earns. He is a teacher.
It is one of the extraordinary anomalies of Polish economic management that a job like hers, or an office block cleaner's, pays more than many professional grades, from teachers and hospital interns, to actors and the like.
Mrs. P. worked as a trained nurse until she found she could do better in a hotel. Almost all the combined family income goes for food.
The way prices are now, she says, ''we cannot get by, even on the barest standards, with less than 15,000 zlotys a month for food, and it's still not enough.''
That averages out to 500 zlotys daily. Tomatoes at 400 zlotys a kilo, and a nicer cut of meat at 600 zlotys. . . .
How do they manage?
And what about clothes? Mrs. P. laughs. She explains the system under which people may get loans at their workplaces for clothes or household necessities. Conditions are strict. One loan must be paid off, in monthly installments, before a second can be obtained.
''Before Christmas,'' she says, ''we borrowed 20,000 for clothes. Now we are paying it back, and, when we've done so, we shall need another.''