Italy rolls out ‘citizens’ income’ for the poor amid criticisms

Italy’s populist government has rolled out its “citizens’ income” for the poor scheme, amid criticism that the part of the initiative meant to help claimants find a job is not ready to be implemented.

Citizens’ income is the ambitious flagship policy of the Five Star Movement (M5S), which the party – in government with the far-right League – is counting on to alleviate poverty, boost consumer spending and spur economic growth.

Those eligible must prove their household income is less than the poverty line figure of €780 (£640) a month. The amount that can be claimed ranges from up to €780 for single people and €1,300 for a family with two children.

The initiative is costing the Italian government €7.1bn in its first year, an expenditure that contributed to clashes with the European commission over Italy’s budget for 2019 and almost led to the country being sanctioned.

But with 5 million people who live beneath the poverty line expected to apply for the scheme, it has been lauded as “revolutionary” by the M5S leader and labour minister, Luigi Di Maio.

“I have worked on this so much,” he said. “Today we are keeping a promise. The state is finally dealing with the invisible people, those who have been on the margins of this country and the political debate.”

Claimants will start receiving the benefit via pre-paid debit cards from mid-April. But it comes with restrictions on how they can spend the money: initially, they will only be able to use the cards for food shopping or to buy medication. If there is money left on the card by the end of the month, it is debited rather than carried over to the next month.

Recipients must also enroll in job training, and will lose the benefit if they turn down more than three job offers. Di Maio advised potential beneficiaries that it was better to accept the first job they were offered, otherwise they risk being forced to take a job anywhere in Italy.

The benefit will last for 18 months, but claimants will then be able to reapply if still eligible.

Di Maio said the scheme would increase consumer spending and trigger economic growth, but critics argue it will lead to an economy based on handouts rather than job creation. Italy’s unemployment rate rose to 10.5% in January, the third highest in the EU.

Italy lacks an efficient system for providing people with necessary training and employment, while millions are employed off-the-books, especially in the poorer southern regions.

Michel Martone, a former deputy minister for labour and professor of labour law at Luiss University in Rome, said: “I think [the benefit] will be useful in fighting poverty, but the second objective of finding people jobs will be difficult.

“This is because they haven’t implemented the administrative structure necessary to find people jobs. Another problem, especially in the south, is that there are no jobs, so it’s going to be really hard for people to get work.”

Di Maio has pledged to hire 6,000 “navigators” at job centres across the country, who will be responsible for helping claimants finding employment. New hires would need to go through regional recruitment procedures, which could take up to a year.

According to Piero Casale, who used to work at a job centre in the southern Campania region, the scheme will not create jobs.

“The thing that was missing was the capacity to provide assistance in the search for work,” he said. “We didn’t have the tools, especially in the south, where jobs aren’t distributed through job centres. Now these navigators will have to be the intermediary between the job demand and the job offer. Another aspect typical of the south is that many are employed in the black [economy], this is a way of living.”