By Gavin Jones
ROME (Reuters) – Italy’s flagship welfare reform kicked off in busy but orderly fashion on Wednesday as thousands of poor and unemployed people applied in post offices and tax assistance centres for the “citizens’ income” scheme.
The populist 5-Star Movement, which governs with the right-wing League and has long promoted the measure, hopes it will lift its flagging fortunes ahead of European Parliament elections in May.
Despite a steady flow of applicants, warnings of chaos and long queues proved misplaced, as many people appeared to heed advice not to sign up on the scheme’s first day.
“This is so helpful, it will give me some breathing space to get to the end of each month,” said 36-year-old Svetlana Guerra as she left a small tax assistance centre (CAF) in a densely populated quarter of south-eastern Rome.
Guerra, a Ukrainian-born widow who has lived in Italy for 19 years and survives thanks to odd jobs paid under the counter, said she expected the citizens’ income to give her about 280 euros ($315) per month to help her pay her rent.
Guerra is one of millions struggling to make ends meet in a country in its third recession in 10 years and where the economy has barely grown since the start of the century.
Eleonora Tonnicodi, who runs the centre with just one assistant, said they had helped some 20 people apply for the new scheme in the first two hours of the morning.
Applicants can apply until the end of March and, if successful, the first month’s money will be paid in May.
Giuseppe Calafiore, a 66-year-old unemployed car mechanic, said he had no income and he and his wife were surviving on her disability pension of 780 euros per month.
“I’ve come to find out if I’m eligible …because it would at least help until I can get a (state) pension next year,” he said.
Italians in absolute poverty, defined as not having enough money to buy a basket of basic goods and services, rose to 5.1 million in 2017, according to statistics office ISTAT. That is a more than threefold increase in a decade.
Italy has traditionally had a generous pension system and offered limited-term state benefits for those laid off from work, but until last year it was virtually unique among rich countries in having no means-tested welfare scheme.
The previous centre-left government aimed to fill that gap, but the “inclusion income” programme it launched ahead of elections a year ago set aside just 2 billion euros and was widely deemed inadequate.
The citizens’ income, a rallying call for 5-Star since its foundation in 2009, will cost 7 billion euros this year and is expected to go initially to 2.7 million people, according to ISTAT.
Critics say Italy’s strained public finances cannot afford it.
The 5-Star Movement was easily the biggest party at the March 2018 national election but has seen its support slide since then and been overtaken in opinion polls by the League.
“The state is finally taking care of the invisible ones… who have been on the fringes of this country and the political debate,” said 5-Star leader and Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio.
(Reporting By Gavin Jones; editing by John Stonestreet)