The bright side of Poland’s “brain-drain”

A lot has been made in the last few weeks about Poland cutting taxes for the young to prevent them emigrating. The fear, it is said, is that with Poland seeing heavy emigration in the last fifteen years a “brain drain” has occurred, wherein the country’s best and brightest have abandoned Poland. For migration researchers, this trend is not so simple as Poland being left weaker by emigration and even the term itself, “brain drain”, obscures the real benefits and drawbacks of migration.

The income tax cut, which came into effect in early August, takes the tax rate down to zero for those under 26 earning under $22,000 per year. It was one of a number of election promises made by the leader of the ruling Prawo i Sprawiedliwość party earlier in the year, in a clear effort to win voters ahead of October’s parliamentary elections. The promise tapped into fears among Polish citizens about demographic decline. With the fertility rate incredibly low and general resistance to immigration, the country is naturally concerned with what’s going to happen to Polish industry and the welfare state (a concern shared across the continent).

For Poland, this worry needs to be seen in context. Since around 2004 (when Poland joined the EU and gained access to member countries’ labor markets) the country saw emigration of well over a million people, many to the U.K. To give a picture of this, in 2001 the number of Polish-born people living in the U.K. was 58,000. By 2011 that number had risen to 676,000.

This history, coupled with today’s record low unemployment and labor shortages in Poland, might lead one to see a picture of emigration since 2004 as simply a bad thing. A brain drain, perhaps. But Barbara Jancewicz, head of the Economics of Migration Research Unit at the Centre of Migration Research in Warsaw, says this is not the correct picture at all.

“If those people (who left) had stayed we would have had a lot of young frustrated people just searching for work,” says Jancewicz. “So the fact that they migrated saved us a lot of trouble. In a way they got something; they could work and they could develop and they could earn money and get new skills. And in that time our economy grew.”


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