The European Commission has initiated infringement proceedings against Italy over the Assegno Unico and the Citizenship Income, asking it to change the residency requirements (two years for the former, as many as 10 for the latter, two of them consecutive) because they discriminate against EU citizens. The Commission has no competence to comment on non-EU citizens (which remains the most critical issue), but the point remains substantial. We are faced with a violation of principles which are not only essentially tied to EU law, but which, when applied to Italians in other European countries, amount to less stringent access criteria than those provided by the Italian legislature. The most striking case is surely the Citizenship Income. The requirement of 10 years of continuous residence to benefit from it is clearly a way to exclude most immigrants from the measure.
No European country has such strict criteria. In France, EU citizens’ access to Revenue Solidarité Active (RSA) is conditional on stable residence but for a period of at least three months. For non-EU nationals, a residence permit is required (and they must have had authorization to work in France for at least five years). In Germany, the requirement (even after the recent reform that established the Bürgergeld in place of the much-criticized Hartz IV) is 5 years of continuous residence in case the beneficiary has never worked, while this is reduced when their income is too low or they have lost a job. The list could go on, and we would not find any country as discriminatory as Italy.
The paradox is that by doing so, while limiting access to non-Italians, we are also preventing Italians returning to Italy from benefiting from the Citizenship Income, as the Commission has pointed out. Paradoxes aside, we are faced with a typical case of welfare chauvinism, or the idea of limiting access to social protection benefits to only natives and members of the national community, excluding immigrants or even ethnic minorities and groups deemed “undeserving” regardless of anything else. These are the positions of the securitarian right-wingers who have gained ground in recent years by exploiting the clash between the lowest and the next-to-lowest, blaming the former for the progressive impoverishment of the middle classes and the gradual diminishment of social protection provisions.
Citizenship, ethnicity, race, even religion, become the criteria through which to guarantee access to social benefits which are increasingly negligible and conditional on income. But that is precisely the point. Welfare systems and social policies, when they were on a growth path, have been an essential tool not only of protection but also of integration, limiting the disruptive reach of discrimination and distinctions that have returned with the cuts in social spending.
In the past, starting with the lowest was the first step of a progressive inclusion into the system of citizenship, which ensured that large parts of the population, including the middle classes, could relate to the benefits and usefulness of social protection. Over the years, under the pressure of the need to keep public spending in balance in the face of rapidly growing demand, this has ended up becoming the means by which to exclude and punish claimants, who are first asked to justify their deservingness.
The implication of this drift is there for all to see. Social entitlements, even when they are expanded or maintained against the downward spending pressures, are increasingly conditional, exacerbating the forms of control and narratives about “couch sitters” that right-wingers (and, in Italy, even parts of what used to be the center-left) enjoy so much.
What will the Italian government do in response to the Commission’s infringement proceedings? Probably nothing, pending a reform that proposes to solve the deservingness problem simply by limiting benefits only to the poor who cannot work. The question will be whether these can include EU citizens who don’t have jobs and cannot work.
These are numbers that certainly don’t jeopardize budget bottom lines, which are instead bound to improve as a result of the cuts that will be passed on to the so-called “activatable” beneficiaries, who supposedly bear the responsibility (or guilt?) of having such a low-paying job that they need some form of income supplement, as is normal in all European countries that have a minimum income scheme. This will no longer be the case in Italy. Assistance will only be given to the “deserving” (that is, those who cannot work at all); the others must work at any cost, even below minimally decent standards, and in the absence of a minimum wage that has disappeared from the radar.
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