The “citizenship income” excludes the “absolute poor” and is not an instrument that serves to lift people out of poverty. Caritas’s “2022 Report” entitled “The Weakest Link,” presented on Monday on the occasion of the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, gave an accurate snapshot of the political problem of the last-resort benefit introduced in Italy since 2019 and improperly dubbed the “citizenship income.” Since it was introduced, this benefit has been used by a total of 4.7 million people, and yet, due to its design, has reached less than half of the “absolute poor”: 44%.
There are several ways in which the law designed by the Five Stars and the Lega in the “Conte 1” government excludes more than half of the absolute poor in Italy. There is the racist 10-year residency requirement that excludes non-EU citizens, the poorest of the poor. The “citizenship income” is received by EU citizens 89% of the time, but the incidence of absolute poverty among non-EU citizens is four times higher than among Italians.
Secondly, there is the mix of fiscal “thresholds” that are too low and in any case hard to comprehend. They seem designed to exclude people with incomes even slightly above the access threshold, punish those who have even minimal earnings, and fail to help those who are struggling at the moment.
Then there is the flawed “equivalence scale” which has the result that the “income” is disproportionately awarded to households consisting of only one person. Unfortunately, absolute poverty is more often encountered among households with a large number of members.
Moreover, there is only one set of rules and thresholds for the whole country, while the poverty thresholds used by ISTAT to estimate the number of poor people are higher in the North because they reflect the higher average level of prices. The latter situation can only worsen with the current crisis, featuring high utility bills and skyrocketing inflation (+8.9%, with household item prices approaching +11%). Poverty looks set to increase even more.
Despite the populist propaganda circulating for more than a year based on a single ISTAT estimate, that the “citizenship income” kept one million people above the poverty level during the pandemic, the Caritas report highlights the statistical reality: in 2021, absolute poverty is back to 2019 levels, affecting 5,571,000 people, including 1.2 million minors. Poverty in Italy has tripled since 2007, when the social crisis linked to the sovereign debt crisis emerged. As capitalist crises come one after the other, we continue to have a lack of tools to fight poverty and help people escape it. This is the problem that tends to be swept under the rug in Italy as well.
This does not mean that the “income” is provided to people who are not entitled to it. Those who do receive it meet the requirements. But its pool of potential recipients is much wider, and also extends to people in “relative poverty.” Caritas argues that the absolute poor should be focused on. But even if that were the case, it would not be enough, because poverty is increasing among those working precariously. Caritas argues that there should be other welfare measures for them. Given the relative paucity of resources, therefore, it would be better for the income to focus on the truly destitute. However, given the inequalities of Italy’s “patchwork” welfare system, we are well within our rights to doubt that this can work.
In any case, a transformative political force capable of changing this situation would be needed. But no such force exists in Italy, as was evident with the “Conte 2” government, not to mention Draghi’s. What would be needed is a basic minimum income aimed at a potential pool of at least 15 million people, as part of a radically rethought welfare state.
Yet another tragedy could come with the far-right post-fascist government, which seems to want to scale back the “income,” or, at any rate, to reinforce the exclusionary workfare techniques envisioned by the M5S-Lega in 2019. This is a very serious violation of fundamental rights, which sets a precedent. The Meloni government could use it to strengthen what scholars on the subject have called the “poverty regime,” in an even more punitive and exclusionary direction than the current one. The Caritas report is already a warning for the future.
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