Citizens' Income: A show of solidarity for Italy’s government of change
“Citizens’ income is a buffer which allows people to rediscover the path to economic independence and complete social integration”, says Luigi di Maio, Deputy Prime Minister of the Italian government, leader of the Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle, M5S).
My Facebook status is coloured red and says, “🔥 Looking for someone who’s going to apply for Citizens' Income from the CAF (Italian Tax Service Centre, Ed.) 🙏 👉 Inbox me 💪”. Initially I’m met with digital silence. There’s just one comment which jokes that the post seems like something straight out of M5S “social media strategy”. Then I finally receive a message in my inbox, the first I’ve received in 10 days of nationwide searching. It’s 31-year old Francesca (her name is fictitious), an acquaintance from the past.
To sum it up, for those who have spent the last ten years far away from Italy’s small, rural towns, understanding the country in the new context of Citizens' Income means, rediscovering the geographical areas that have been described as ‘forgotten’, elsewhere. To avoid any awkwardness, I make a call.
Compared to ten years ago, Francesca explains that she now has a baby in her arms and mortgage on her back. Since the last time we saw each other she has worked in catering by first securing cash-in-hand, then an apprenticeship (which didn’t lead to full employment) and afterwards through seasonal work. Along the way she also joined a training course. Now she’s a housewife. Her husband, on the other hand, has a permanent contract which is a rarity given the fact that around there nobody gets a stable job anymore. Her father, in contrast, lost his job a few years ago when he was 54 and has remained unemployed ever since. Francesca tells me that in a few days she has an appointment with the CAF to see if she meets the requirements for Citizens' Income.
More than 5 billion euros of public spending, at least 2 million families involved and a financial allowance of up to 780 euros per month for single individuals, Italy’s Citizens' Income could be the game changer of the social Italian state.
In the meantime however the criteria to access the “buffer”, is strict in terms of income, property and asset ownership and citizenship. Moreover, you must be willing to accept one out of every three employment offers from Job Centres. In order to take on the difficult task of managing the volume of people involved in Citizens' Income, the government will employ ‘navigators’, whose role will be to accompany beneficiaries through the process.
In the Italian political game, everyone has found a reason to criticise the measure. According to former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, Citizens' Income “praises the lazy.” Silvio Berlusconi talks of “buying the votes of the poor”, while Emma Bonino fears “new discrimination between Italians and foreigners” as a result of the limits on residency. So, does that mean that Citizens' Income is undefendable?
In the face of the numerous criticisms, Marcello Maria Natili, PhD in Political Science and a welfare expert, takes any ambiguity off the table.“If I didn’t know who had done it, or why, I would say it’s a positive measure”, says Natilli. “Before Citizens' Income, Italy and Greece were the only countries in Europe without a programme of guaranteed minimum income to combat the poverty problem”.
What then has characterised the Italian model until now? Marcello Maria Natili says, “Focus on pensions, the role of the family and above all, the absence of instruments to redistribute wealth from top to bottom in favour of the poor, the precarious and women”.
These characteristics have become deficiencies with the impact of the economic crisis. “The increase in extreme poverty indicates that the Italian working age population is unequalled in Europe. Before 2008 poverty was more of a problem for the unemployed in the South. It’s an issue that has steadily begun to affect the whole country and families with parents on a salary”, Natili explains. “Even in small towns, if you have children to provide for, then 1000 euros a month doesn’t guarantee safety from the poverty line”.
A WhatsApp message from Francesca brings me back to everyday life, far from the theory. “The unionist called me. I don’t meet the criteria for Citizens' Income. It’s not what I needed, but that’s how it went.”
Although Natili highlights the nationwide reach of the poverty problem, the debate around Citizens' Income has focused on the repercussions it will have in the South. So much so that, in the last few weeks, the Italian media has been in a frenzy. The CAFs they said, would surely be bombarded from the 6th of March when applications opened. In February, an unusual number of change of residency requests in the southern city of Bari, potentially with a view to meet Citizens' Income requirements, caused the press to fear for the worst. However, as my train pulls into Puglia’s main city, I get a call from the UIL’s (Italian Labour Union) CAF saying, “Just to let you know, no queues here”. There was not a soul in sight. Then Francesca calls me.
As the olive groves of the Gargano stretch out alongside me, I ask her if she’s annoyed with the government. “I’m disappointed, but I don’t blame the government; they would have done all the necessary studies to define these criteria”, she says. Why did she want to apply? “To get a job”. And the income? “To pay the mortgage and current costs”. Then I ask her how she voted in the last elections and if the promise of Citizens' Income had played a role. “If it wasn’t for M5S, I wouldn’t have even gone to the polls. But Citizens' Income has nothing to do with it. I was looking for a change”, she says.
With Natili’s analysis in mind, I ask her if she feels ‘poor’. The response is a dry ‘no’. But then she opens up and says “We carry on and times are tight, but there are people who are worse off.” As for the criticisms levelled at Citizens' Income, she says,“They’re all attempts to boycott this government”. And what now? What does the future hold? “I’ve always been a person who has worked and I want to continue to do so. My independence is at stake”. Finally I ask her if apart from the consultation for Citizens' Income, she comes into any contact with the trade unions. Francesca scoffs at the suggestion, “I’ve met a good unionist recently but generally speaking, I no longer believe in the unions”.
The UIL’s CAF, as promised, isn’t crowded. Mariella Carella is the employee in charge of managing Citizens' Income applications. I manage to intercept her between tasks. I want to understand who has applied. She describes people that from a working age standpoint are “either very young, or fairly old”. What do they expect? “They want a job to be able to provide for their family with dignity”. And the income? “It’s not unusual to hear ‘Madam, think again if you think I’m here for the income’”. A couple of quick stop-offs at the CGIL (Italian General Confederation of Labour) and CSIL (Italian Confederation of Trade Unions) CAFs in town confirm that ‘D-Day’ is nothing more than a ‘millennium bug’.
The day after tomorrow?
Maria Giorgia Vulcano, 29 years old, is the regional coordinator of the NIDIL (New Labour Identities), the CGIL trade union which represents atypical workers. We discuss Puglia and Italy. She explains to me that our production structures are “undergoing transformation” in the background of a large Enel (Italian Agency for Electricity) power station. Because of this, she is happy that the way has been paved for minimum income in Italy. However, keeping in line with my previous findings, she confirms that the majority of people who apply for Citizens' Income will look for a job. That’s why, in the medium term, Citizens' Income must go hand in hand with broader questions of economic policy. “It’s fine to tackle poverty, but we have to address the root cause of inequalities. What is this government’s strategy for Italy?”, questions Maria Giorgia Vulcano.
I don’t have an answer for her, but to get back to Citizens' Income, I relay Francesca’s comments on trade unions. She confesses “they’re a punch to the stomach”. I tell her that, while we’re discussing problems with Citizens' Income ‘in the medium term’, those who don’t benefit from it still value it, quite simply as a change. “Maybe”, she responds, “but ‘change’ is not a neutral word”. After having crossed almost half of Italy to understand the current relationship between Italian citizens and Citizens' Income, what has actually become clear is the consolidation of connections between government parties and their respective voters. It seems that there exists an electoral solidarity and one of change.
Despite these underwhelming first few days in light of the bombardment that was foreseen, will the buffer be up to the task and be able to deliver a new and long-awaited model of social solidarity? The spotlight remains on the possible evolution of links between workers and citizens of different social fortunes and backgrounds. But for now, applicants for Citizens' Income are few and far between.