The Origins of the Welfare State

Polish Social Policy in the Period 1918–1939

by Paweł Grata (Author) Ian Upchurch (Revision)
©2021 Monographs 208 Pages


The book focuses on the Polish social policy, its contextual (historical, organisational, conceptual, financial) conditionings, the institutions it fitted in, and primarily on the practical activities, undertaken by the state and other entities with regard to its individual domains. The time span covered by the analysis is the period of 1918–1939. The scope of the research is based on the ways the social policy in the interwar period was conceptualised. It covers labour and employment issues (labour legislation, combatting unemployment, migration policy), social insurance (retirement pension, work injury, sickness insurance), social welfare (support for the poor, welfare for mothers, children, adults and the disabled, problems of social pathologies) and health care system.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter I Institutional framework
  • 1. Towards the establishment of the Polish legal system
  • 2. State social policy institutions
  • Chapter II Conceptual and financial conditioning
  • 1. Assumptions and objectives of Polish social policy
  • 2. Financial determinants
  • Chapter III Labour protection problem areas
  • 1. Institutions ensuring compliance with labour protection legislation
  • 2. Competence of the Labour Inspectorate
  • 3. Enforcement of labour legislation
  • Chapter IV The development of the social insurance system
  • 1. Insurance institutions
  • 2. Subjective scope of the security system
  • 3. Insurance coverage in practice
  • Chapter V Employment policy
  • 1. Labour market institutions
  • 2. Scope of unemployment
  • 3. Unemployment benefits
  • 4. Active measures taken to combat unemployment
  • Chapter VI Social welfare
  • 1. Social welfare institutions
  • 2. Welfare for children and youths
  • 3. Support for adults
  • Chapter VII Public Health Care
  • 1. Institutional framework
  • 2. Financial and human resources
  • 3. Public health care in practice
  • Conclusions
  • Bibliography
  • Index of Names
  • Series index


The interwar period was a particularly important time for the development of social policy, understood as the purposeful activities of a state or other entity aimed at the mitigation of results of social inequalities and elimination of barriers in social life. Although theoretically the beginnings of the labour legislation considered as fundamental in view of the above facts, and the social reforms introduced by Chancellor Bismarck, date back to the nineteenth century, it was the two decades in the interwar period that constituted an actual breakthrough in the perception and practices of social policy. It was then that social policy became not only an attempt to reduce poverty and its consequences, but also a comprehensive system of state interventions, operating – as stated in 1930 by Prof. Zofia Daszyńska-Golińska, a renowned researcher of social issues1 – to the benefit of ‘welfare, satisfaction and the system of justice of the working world’ which were directly conditioned by economic development.

In compliance with the academic trends observed at the beginning of the twentieth century social policy covered primarily labour issues (labour legislation, social insurance). However, the close relation between labour issues and health care, together with welfare activities, acting as a substitute for social insurance instruments, clearly extended the range of topics in focus that were of interest for social policy which – thus – covered additional domains of life and addressed the issue of eliminating a ‘faulty mechanism of dividing social income.’2←7 | 8→

This shows the evolutionary extension in the subject matter scope of the social policy system and points to the social benefit system covering an ever-increasing number of groups of citizens in the individual European countries. These were no longer only the poorest factory workers, but also other categories of persons employed in industry, also including agricultural workers and white-collar workers.

The most important ‘new’ social policy systems include extending the range of retirement pension and sickness insurance beyond that which was known before, increasing provision of unemployment insurance, which was rare before World War I, and proposing a family allowance. What is important, the majority of the structural transformations noted in social policy occurred before the trauma of the economic crisis, which – admittedly – expedited the state’s welfare initiatives, but it did not start them (Roosevelt’s reform in 1935 may be assumed to be an exception here).3

Although the contemporary welfare model was established after World War II, it is assumed that it was in the interwar period that social policy substantially changed from the nineteenth-century system to a purposeful and systemic one, aimed at addressing important social objectives, achieved by actions undertaken by the state. Changes in the intervention programmes implemented by the state and local governments, covering ever increasing numbers of people with the life risk security system, featured the most important elements of this transformation. Obviously, the advancement of the processes related to the introduction of modern social policy solutions varied, but the said trend was undoubtedly common and it resulted in the successive development of a solid and extensive foundation for the new model of state involvement in social issues.

The challenges faced by the social policy of Interwar Poland, as restored after a period of occupation exceeding one hundred years, proved to be exceptionally difficult and complicated in the context of establishing the principles of the state’s welfare activities according to such a scenario. The lack of sovereignty at the time that this domain of exercising public authority was established determined in advance the need to employ the solutions practiced by the partitioners (Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary), and these – in principle – were not considered to be specifically modern (common workers’ retirement pension insurance existed exclusively in the former German partition). What is more, the local government ←8 | 9→traditions that were especially important in the context of social policy were also missing in the former Russian partition, the most densely populated and most important part of the restored state. Further, workers’ self-help programmes, which in Western Europe constituted an important interim stage on the way to the establishment of comprehensive social insurance, were not developed. The differences between the former partitions, the economic and financial difficulties encountered in the first years of independence and the traditional population structure that was based on agriculture were other factors that hindered the attempts to introduce Polish social policy in the independent state.

In spite of numerous negative factors, the young Polish state took on the challenges from the very beginning of its existence, and those who were working on the issues did their best to compensate for the long-term negligence in this respect. If we disregard the actual possibilities of achieving the objective posed in this respect, we need to note that the social policy of interwar Poland made up an exceptionally difficult, complicated, diverse, multifaceted and wide-ranging problem area. It covered a few very important domains of social and economic life, and the attempts undertaken by the state’s institutions to organise these – in principle – resembled operations using public engineering methodology. The problems with employment, unemployment, social insurance, social welfare or health care constituted a very extensive area of state interventions in the domain of social relations, the level and quality of life and even issues of the effectiveness and rationality of the economy sensu largo.

Solving problems arising in the processes of developing social institutions invariably remains the main objective of social policy. The situation was different in interwar Poland, which surely witnessed many problems in the domain of social life sensu largo. Some of the important social issues that Polish social policy had to tackle at the beginning of the state’s sovereignty included: poverty, lack of work, failures to observe employees’ rights, inadequate old age and life risks security, lack of common access to health care, housing problems, family existential problems, the problem of children deprived of care or the situation of working women. Although the period of twenty years between the world wars proved to be decisively too short a time to tackle these issues, it is worthwhile to have a closer look at the concepts, methods and effects of the actions undertaken with the aim of solving social problems in Poland.

The provision of some insights into the social policy of interwar Poland is even more necessary because of there being de facto no relevant research or scientific publications in the Polish post-war literature. Admittedly, over time the problems encountered by the working class came to the fore in the research agenda, related monographs published covered discussion of selected issues of ←9 | 10→the state’s actions in the social domain (childcare, economic migration, organisation of the healthcare system), and contemporarily, the focus is on family issues, but no extensive account of social policy viewed as an entire system of actions undertaken in interwar Poland has ever been proposed, either by historians or by social politicians. The only studies presenting a holistic account of the social policy of the interwar period go back to interwar Poland itself and they were published upon the initiative of the social welfare public administration.

The clear lack of any systematic account of Polish social policy in the interwar period constituted the most significant factor and justification for the undertaking of holistic research into the social policy issues of interwar Poland in the first decade of the twenty-first century. This publication is an abbreviated and modified version of a monograph published in 2013 under the title Polityka społeczna Drugiej Rzeczypospolitej. Uwarunkowania – instytucje – działania.4 It is updated with the latest research findings and it focuses on Polish social policy, its contextual (historical, organisational, conceptual and financial) conditions, the institutions it fitted in, and primarily on the practical activities undertaken by the state and other entities with regard to its individual domains. The time span covered by the analysis is the period of 1918–1939. The subject matter scope of the research is based on the ways in which social policy in the interwar period was conceptualised. It covers labour and employment issues (labour legislation, combating unemployment and controlling migration policy), social insurance (retirement pension, work injury and sickness insurance), social welfare (support for the poor, welfare for mothers, children, adults and the disabled, problems of social pathologies) and the healthcare system.

The basic research question posed in the context of the abovementioned problems is an attempt to identify the objectives and priorities of Polish social policy, the influence of the existing conditions on the achievement of these objectives and the results of actions undertaken. These were assessed both in the global perspective, covering the totality of the state’s interventions, addressing the social issues and in individual aspects of the social policy of interwar Poland. The quality and adequacy of the laws passed, the effectiveness and place of the institutions governing social policy and the effectiveness of social actions undertaken are the basic issues comprised in the subject matter scope of this work. To be more specific, it remained a priority for the author to answer the question about the effectiveness of the actions aimed at protection of employees, ←10 | 11→providing them with a security system against life risks, management of employment policy, administration of social welfare and a healthcare system.

The scope of the issues addressed in this work is somewhat narrowed, compared to other contemporary studies on social policy, but it remains adequate in relation to the context of the interwar period. Family policy and educational policy, if discussed at all, are treated as separate areas in the foregoing on the grounds of either being included in the other domains of social policy in interwar Poland or not considered to be an integral part of social policy at all, as in the latter case. Contemporarily, educational policy is commonly considered to make up part of social policy, but this approach is the result of the long-term evolution of the concept of the welfare state after World War II which made it one of the basic objectives of social actions undertaken by the state to guarantee equal chances and equal access to public services, including education. In general, it needs to be stated that in the interwar period the definition and scope of the concept of social policy were clearly narrower than they are now, which is justified in the context of the commonly accepted theory of the evolutionary character of social issues.5

This research was based on archival sources, printed sources and findings discussed in the literature of the subject. It was the author’s intention to prepare a concise discussion, which determined the scope of the material presented in the foregoing. The basic source here were documents collected in the Central Archive of Modern Records (Archiwum Akt Nowych) in Warsaw. The records of the Ministry of Social Welfare (Ministerstwo Opieki Społecznej 1918–1939) and the Minutes from the Sessions of the Council of Ministers (Protokoły posiedzeń Rady Ministrów 1918–1937), presenting the process of establishing the legal and institutional framework of Polish social policy, proved to be most useful. Moreover, the author exploited materials from the records created by the Presidium of the Council of Ministers and by the Ministry of Internal Affairs (Ministerstwo Spraw Wewnętrznych). Other sources referred to by the author cover the following: printed documents, including legal acts, stenographic reports and printed forms of the two chambers of the Polish Parliament and of the statistical publishing houses, reports from institutions involved in social policy (i.a. Welfare Council/Rada Opieki Społecznej, Labour Inspection/←11 | 12→Inspekcja Pracy, Unemployment Fund/Fundusz Bezrobocia, Labour Fund/Fundusz Pracy) along with selected memories and diaries that are of significance for the identification of some social issues in Poland. Finally, specialist journals published in the interwar period constituted an invaluable source of knowledge, with the renowned example of the journal Praca i Opieka Społeczna6 published by the Ministry of Social Welfare (Ministerstwo Opieki Społecznej) in the years 1921–1939.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (May)
Social policy history Labour law Employment policy Social insurance Social welfare Health care system
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 208 pp., 4 tables.

Biographical notes

Paweł Grata (Author) Ian Upchurch (Revision)

Paweł Grata is Professor in the University of Rzeszow and Head of the Section of Economic and Social History. He is also Chairman of the Polish Association of Economic History. His scientific interests include economic history, social history, social policy, economic policy and regional history.


Title: The Origins of the Welfare State
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214 pages