Invisible to tourists: Italy's growing poor

AP News
Posted: Nov 15, 2011 10:40 AM
Invisible to tourists: Italy's growing poor

They line up at soup kitchens by the thousands. Individual debt is rising, savings are eroding and many young people have simply given up, staying home without studying or even looking for a job.

They are Italy's invisible poor, unseen by tourists, ignored by the country's fat-cat politicians and living in a reality that's a far cry from former Premier Silvio Berlusconi's description of an affluent country where "the restaurants are full."

Or in the words of Francesa Zuccari, who runs a soup kitchen in Rome: "There is another city out there where people can't get to the end of the month."

This is the Italy facing Mario Monti, the economics professor tapped to form an interim technocratic government after Berlusconi was forced to resign last weekend. International markets and the European Community decided the 75-year-old media mogul lacked the political clout to enact needed reforms to head off a debt crisis and get the economy moving.

On Tuesday, Monti won support from Italy's two largest parties, but the question remains whether politicians will back his expected painful reform measures at the risk of social peace.

On the one hand, Italy's elite manufacturers are girding for an increase in luxury exports and some wealthy Italians are looking to move their money into the real-estate markets in New York, Miami and Paris.

On the other, the state statistics institute ISTAT says 8 million Italians, almost 14 percent of the population, are living in "relative poverty."

While tourists may not see the poor as they visit Tuscany's rolling hills, Venice's waterways or the Amalfi coast's picturesque villages, they are increasingly visible on Italian city streets.

Many Italians have begun taking their money out of banks, fearing reports that measures to help fight the sovereign debt crisis might include deductions from bank accounts, as was done in the 1990s.

"They are putting it under the mattress, or even inside empty wine jugs in the cellars. We are a country of farmers," said Elio Lannutti, president of consumer protection group Adusbef.

An American service organization in Rome asked its members to spend their Thanksgiving holiday next week making food packages for the poor. Zuccari said demand for food parcels had risen 20 percent in the last few years, with well-dressed Italians now joining immigrants in line.

Caritas, the Roman Catholic church's charity arm, says growing numbers of families can't meet a surprise expense of euro700 ($947) without turning to borrowing.

"What is really dramatic is the geographic division," said Caritas' Walter Nanni, pointing to figures that Italy's south remains severely impoverished.

While only 18 percent of families in the Alpine province of Trento could not meet such an unexpected payment for medical expenses or car repairs, the figure rises to 48 percent in Sicily.

"The (south) shows in a particular manner growing signs of economic and social vulnerability," Monsignor Mariano Crociata, secretary-general of the Italian Bishops Conference, said in an October report on poverty.

To be sure, Italy isn't as bad off as Greece or Portugal, which are both in recession, struggling with high unemployment as they are being bailed out by international lenders.

But Italy's prospects aren't great either, particularly given its brain drain and policies that have pushed Italy's underutilized youth even further to the margins.

A gerontocracy dominates Italy's key professional posts, making workers even well into their 40s still considered up-and-coming. In the highest political circles, Monti is 68, Berlusconi is 75 and the president of Italy, Giorgio Napolitano, is 86.

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Many younger Italians in fields like medicine, science and technology leave for countries that have more professional opportunities and mobility.

And the prospects for those who have not left are eroding fast. The Bank of Italy this month reported that nearly one in four Italians under 30 _ a total of 2.2 million people _ neither study nor work.

The great majority of the Italian NEET's _ short for "Not in Education, Employment or Training" _ live at home with at least one parent, and a full 25 percent are living in a family where no one is working, the bank said.

A university degree does little to alleviate their plight: A full 20 percent of college graduates are without a job.

Lawyers in Italy must do a two-year apprenticeship before taking the bar exam, and most firms take advantage of the requirement to get free labor out of the trainees. Among the measures being discussed to confront the debt crisis would be a requirement that internships are paid.

"At least with Monti there is some hope since he is not a politician subject to pressure from the lobbies," said Francesco Bureca, who graduated from an elite school but can't land a job.

But hardline leftists expect no improvement for Italy's poor, even from the new government.

"The Monti government is born from a mandate of Confindustria (a powerful business lobby) and the banks," said Marco Ferrando, leader of the tiny Communist Workers Party.

He called for new protests. Italy's last major economic protest this fall ended in a bloody riot on the streets of Rome.


Barry reported from Milan.