Analysis. The goal is to turn public assistance and support for finding work into an obstacle course that makes people’s lives hell.

From citizenship income to obstacle income: the new war on the poor

The start of the new year was also the start of another phase in the war on the poor, waged by those who were already saying the “citizenship income” was “state-provided methadone” back in 2021.

On Monday, the third “reform” of anti-poverty policies in the past few years officially went into effect. After the “REI” in 2017 and the “income” in 2019, the “inclusion allowance” that just came into effect took the workfare criteria already contained in the previous “citizenship income” and made them even more restrictive, making everything worse.

This latest transition took place in two stages. The first began in September 2023, when a particular subsidy called “training and employment support” was set up for a certain category of the poor deemed “employables.” As a result, at least 240,000 recipients of the “citizenship income” lost their benefit because they were classed as “employable.” Instead, they were forced to seek training in exchange for a benefit of €350 (€200 less than the average “income”). At the same time, as is emerging from many testimonies, it was by no means guaranteed that they would be able to get registered for the new subsidy at all.

According to the first data published on the “inclusion allowance,” as of December 18 a total of 145,000 people signed up: 65,000 managed to apply online, 80,000 through support organizations. As for the “employable,” by Christmas there had been 114,000 applications for “training and employment support,” only 70,000 of whom used to receive the “citizenship income.” When asked what happened to the other 170,000 who lost the benefit, Labor Minister Calderone claimed that they must have either found a job or failed the “checks.” The latter scenario is more likely. Tens of thousands of people were excluded by a rule adopted by the government that restricted access to the benefit by lowering the ISEE income threshold from €9,350 to €6,000. This is the result of the punitive tightening of conditions, not of some boom in the labor market.

According to estimates from INPS, 737,000 families will receive an “inclusion allowance” in 2024, with spending amounting to €5.5 billion. This is a sharp drop from the €7.6 billion allocated for the last year of the “citizenship income” in 2023. It’s all a cash squeeze on the backs of the “poor” – which doesn’t, however, mean that the number of potential beneficiaries has decreased.

With that smaller budget, it was decided to extend coverage to “fragile individuals,” victims of gender-based violence, homeless people, the disabled and those benefiting from mental health services. It is also planned to increase the number of non-EU citizens residing in Italy for less than five years who will be eligible to apply for at least the inclusion allowance.

This decision was not the result of a sudden democratic turn by the Meloni government: it was made to avoid the opening of an infringement procedure by the European Commission, which had already condemned the racist rule passed by the Lega-Five Star government (“Conte 1”) that excluded residents for less than 10 years. The five years wanted by Meloni & co. is likewise too long. As pointed out by the Saraceno Commission – which unsuccessfully tried to change the most irrational aspects of the “citizenship income” – the condition should be decreased to two years of residence, just like for the “unified child allowance,” for example. There is a looming risk that the number of those who will apply for the inclusion allowance will increase, but there will be too little left for “nationals” compared to foreign residents. It is predictable that the most infamous kind of social conflict will break out: that between the poorest of the foreign-born and the slightly-less-poor Italian-born.

Furthermore, these issues are arising amidst a general trend of increasing poverty. According to ISTAT, the number of people living in “absolute” poverty is on the rise: 5.6 million, more than half of them in the south. We are looking at the same situation as in 2019, when the “citizenship income” was introduced: another sign that workfare policies (a category that includes the “citizenship income,” a linguistic fraud which was never what it claimed to be) are not meant to lift anyone from poverty, but to rule over the poor.

While waiting for more reliable data to emerge, we can point to the pro-cyclical nature of Meloni’s policies: cutting the remaining benefits exactly when they would be needed to support those most vulnerable to crisis. The goal is to turn public assistance and support for finding work into an obstacle course that makes people’s lives hell. This is what the devastating analysis published by Bankitalia (and disputed by the government) is pointing to, estimating that the average amount received by families which used to receive the citizenship income will drop by €1,300 per year. Same with the report of the Alliance Against Poverty, according to which the end of the new “training and employment support” in a year’s time will lead to more poor people who will not be counted among the unemployed, partly because these people have been “away” from the “labor market” for years.

This is one of the fundamental laws of workfare as applied by the Meloni government: cut funds, shift the “blame” to welfare recipients, make sure to make their lives hell. Similar results emerged from an initial survey conducted before Christmas by CGIL Florence, the union’s Employment Guidance Service and the INCA support organization in the Tuscan capital, specifically focused on the “support for training and employment” and the effects of the “citizenship income” being replaced by the “inclusion allowance.”

Out of 140 people who applied for the “support,” only 50 received the promised €350 benefit, after enrolling in and attending training courses – a condition imposed by the government for a subsidy that is on average €200 smaller than the inclusion allowance. The rest, however, had been without any economic support for more than three months.

The survey also noted the increase in the so-called “training offer.” The start of new courses has been slowed by their sheer number: in Tuscany, in September, there were 2,000 courses available. In some cases, this made it difficult to reach the minimum number of students per course. Those who did manage to attend were left unsatisfied by the fact that there were no pathways to employment.

Moreover, the training was not tailored to the individual but to businesses, which are not interested in “investing” in the people who apply to job centers. The government money is merely subsidizing the training industry, without producing the “much-touted increase in employment.” There is “great confusion and disorientation among the people involved, who are having trouble following (or fail to follow) the cumbersome procedures that link training to the payment of the benefit, which is as necessary as it is insufficient for their vital needs. It is not always possible to tailor courses to the person’s situation.”

“This is an operation that squeezes the poorest for cash,” the union commented. “They have taken away what was already there to help them and haven’t prepared anything in its place, passing all responsibility to local authorities, unable to offer job opportunities.”

In the Florence area, about 2,200 families which had been receiving the “citizenship income” have contacted CGIL: less than half of them will get the “inclusion allowance.” “It was a sacrosanct duty for politics to set up a universal system of income support that would take into account the person’s overall situation. But even though it had many critical problems, what we had has been de facto dismantled.”

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