Interview. Chiara Saraceno, author of ‘Poverty in Italy,’ says the contempt ‘is very widespread, on the right, on the left, in the center.’

Chiara Saraceno: Budget law is based on contempt for the poor

Chiara Saraceno is Professor of Sociology at the University of Torino. She has focused on research in poverty and social policies, serving on Italy’s Social Exclusion Commission and the EU Observatory on Policies to Combat Social Exclusion. We spoke with her about the attack on the citizenship income by the Meloni government.

Professor Chiara Saraceno, in the book you wrote with David Benassi and Enrica Morlicchio, La povertà in Italia (“Poverty in Italy”, Il Mulino) you speak of “aporaphobia,” the fear or disgust of the poor. How “aporaphobic” is the Meloni government, now in the process of cutting the “citizenship income”? 

There is really contempt there, even more than fear. A contempt that is very widespread, on the right, on the left, in the center. Think about the image of the “couch sitters” that has plagued us over the years. “Aporaphobia” is about those who are sleeping in the streets. There is a lack of knowledge about those who are receiving the citizenship income, which breeds contempt. The way these people are seen, by the media and by the population, is shocking. The other day, I had to eat my words when I heard some ladies saying that the income recipients should go till the earth. There is also some social envy here, claiming those people are getting something and others aren’t. Which is not true.

Prime Minister Meloni called the budget law “courageous.” What courage is there in giving an ultimatum to 660,000 people? 

Letta and Conte will take to the streets, but I don’t think this government fears social conflict. They feel courageous because they have built up this image of the recipients of the citizenship income as the enemy, as well as those who argue that we need this tool, although it needs reform; I am among the latter. Maybe they think they will lose votes in the South, although they didn’t get many in the first place, and certainly not those of the income beneficiaries. They might even get a few more, in fact. Look at what those of the “Third Pole” are saying.

But is it certain that all this involves 660,000 people? 

The numbers are ever-changing. Those are the beneficiaries of the “income” who signed the “pact for work” and should have been called by the employment centers. If we look at the INPS data, and at the data from ANPAL, we discover that a very large majority are people with very low qualifications: they left school after third grade, sometimes even earlier. They are both young people and less young. They are very far from the labor market, they have a history of irregular work. The transition from being employable to being employed is not automatic. Taking away their “income” won’t help them find a job, nor will that enable them to support a family. That doesn’t mean we should do nothing, it means we should do much more. But that takes time and investment. And in the meantime, these people have to eat.

What will these people do from August 2023?

Probably what they were doing before: they’ll get angry, they’ll go into debt, they’ll go to charities, they’ll do odd jobs, they’ll be incentivized to work under the table, they’ll be vulnerable to blackmail.

Will they only take away the “income” from the “employable” person and not the whole household? 

If they only take it away from the employable beneficiary, one of the two parents or an adult child, the family will have to live on one less “income” and the welfare of the household will be reduced. The criteria have not been made explicit yet. At this point, this is a confusing change from a technical point of view, but ideologically it’s very clear.

Will the cut be offset by the 50% increase in the single allowance for the first year of a child’s life?

The increase is a good thing, but they shouldn’t do it only for the first year and only keep it longer from the third child onwards. But that has nothing to do with the citizenship income. There is no automatic connection. Other than adding €50 a month on top of an average family income of €550. Would that be able to support the whole family? I don’t see the compensation.

Labor Minister Calderone says they will have to attend six months of compulsory training. 

Ok, but will they have offers? Will they find a corresponding demand for labor? And if not, what? We have the experience of the “Guarantee of Employability of Workers” (GOL) which is part of the PNRR. It has involved 300,000 people, including NASpI and DIS-COLL (unemployment schemes) income recipients. Despite the fact that half of them have been put on re-employment paths, and are therefore “employable,” very few found a job. I’d like to stress: finding work requires time and investment, not punishment and social disqualification.

What alternative measure will the government adopt?

They seem to want to reintroduce a measure targeted at absolute poverty. So they would give a little only to certain categories of the poor. They might give funds to municipalities, without a guarantee of equal basic criteria across the national territory. It is not even clear if they will allow new applications, or if the measure will just run out. I hope not, because that would leave a lot of people out. I’m not sure they’re aware of this, but poverty is on the rise, with rising bills and all the crises.

There’s a lot of talk about “jobs.” But if there aren’t any jobs, or if they’re precarious, what happens then? 

They say there are jobs, and they bring up the entrepreneurs who can’t find workers as proof. But this is a lie: it’s also because they’re offering too low wages or because there is a lack of specializations that don’t match the people who are receiving the income. Will someone who’s looking for a specialized worker in Friuli find them among the citizenship income beneficiaries in Calabria? I’m afraid not, it doesn’t work like that.

Although poverty is increasing, with every new legislature, everything changes all over again. Why? 

It’s a classic Italian move. Every government is thinking about reinventing instruments that it would be better to adjust and implement. The Five Stars and the Lega did it with the previous “inclusion income.” However, if the Five Stars and the PD, in the previous governments, had worked on a reform as outlined by our Commission, the situation at this point could be different.

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