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Food price hikes push more Poles below poverty level

When Poland's martial law leader, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, looked in on a big textile plant Monday, one of the 4,000 workers told him:

''I have worked here 18 years but never before have I had to work two days for a kilo of meat.'' She might easily have added, ''. . . if I can get it.''

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For the great majority of Poland's 35 million people go short on meat and most other basic items of a normal diet.

Almost one-quarter of them live a hand-to-mouth existence under which, a leading nutritional authority has just warned, a serious problem of malnutrition is developing.

According to Dr. Julian Auleytner -- a member of parliament's welfare commission -- no fewer than 9 to 10 million Poles are living on incomes well below the amount required to cover basic needs.

The figure Dr. Auleytner cites is well above the 5 million known to have been living on or near the poverty line for years. The increase seems to stem from the general worsening of the economy since the late 1970s and from the drastic hikes in food prices begun as the first step toward economic reform Feb. 1.

Prices of many items -- including meat, butter, sugar, and milk -- were trebled or quadrupled.

The average monthly wage is approximately 7,000 zlotys. (Under the December devaluation that is approximately $87 at the official rate.) Increased family allowances and other compensation for the new prices give an average wage earner about 8,500 zlotys or .

But Dr. Auleytner estimates that the barest food expenditure absorbs a minimum of 7,000 zlotys each month. A year ago it was half this.

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Moreover, many in the lowest paid, most menial jobs earn less than half the national average. Worst hit of all are large families, retirees, and families in which a parent is alcoholic or a child with special needs.

Under martial law, the greater press freedom and ''investigative'' journalism of last year has largely disappeared. But Warsaw's leading daily, Zycie Warszawy , nonetheless reported ''blunt comments'' by Dr. Auleytner that the country's formidable social welfare problems are the direct result of the state's failure ''for all those years'' to develop an adequate basis for helping Poland's poorest and neediest.

Conversations with ordinary Poles in recent weeks suggest that even the estimate of 7,000 zlotys for the most basic food budget may be conservative. Many said that, with the new prices, they spend at least 75 percent of their income on food each month.

A family man in a relatively well-paying job said, ''We really spend all we have on food in order to live. A little goes to the children's clothes but not nearly enough, and everything else - well, it has to take care of itself.''

A taxi driver said that he and his wife each have a partial disability allowance of 5,000 zlotys (price compensation included). ''We have to spend it all on food - and we don't live well,'' he said.

The income from his taxi has been decimated by the higher gasoline price and by martial law, which restricted traffic and closed down the night spots that had been many cabbies' best sources for fares, often in hard currency.

Gasoline is now 32 zlotys per liter (about $1.55 per gallon). It is strictly rationed: Taxis can buy only 40 liters -- enough for some 240 miles of driving -- every third day. It can also be bought on the black market at 100 zlotys per liter -- but anti-speculation patrols are very active these days, and getting caught means losing one's license as well as paying a heavy fine.

Meanwhile, the Institute of Occupational Medicine at Lublin -- a rare kind of research center in Eastern Europe -- has produced a report about the state of rural welfare that is greatly at variance with conventional belief that life in the countryside is healthier. Apparently it is not in today's Poland.

Rural communities have had access to national medicare only since 1972. At that time there was one welfare dispensary for each 5,000 people. While there has been improvement, there is still only one for every 4,000 ten years later.

Since 1975, the institute reports, average life expectancy among country people -- particularly for those under 30 -- has decreased by 1 1/2 years. Research indicates that from 30 to 40 percent of all rural children need active correctional care both for inadequate nutrition and for psychosocial handicaps.

The latest demographic reports here added to this disturbing picture the news that the population will have grown some 2 million by 1985 and could reach 40 million by 1990.

Experts are less concerned about the need to provide an additional million jobs for young Poles by the the 1990s than the more immediate problem Dr. Auleytner spells out: ''an undernourishment of part of the younger generation, which may cause irreparable damage quite soon.''

With the likelihood that food will be in even shorter supply until the harvest, food sanctions would appear to be a dubious weapon against martial law.

Moreover, people have already eaten whatever stocks they had managed to build. They have had to draw heavily on savings since the price increases went into effect. By May their cash resources will be running out.

Pensioners were paid three months compensation in advance to help them through the winter.

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