WHAT COVID HAS DONE TO OTHERS ON THE BREADLINE

Inequalities and poverty on the rise post-Covid-19

  • Italy is experiencing a surge of ‘nuovi poveri’ [the new poor]; people who managed – barely – to make ends meet before the pandemic, and now find themselves in a very difficult situation. Picture by Bill Heaney

By VALENTINA SAINIVICENZA, 28. JUL, 08:30

“My sister was a waitress in a restaurant. When she lost her job because of Covid-19, she came to stay with me. She used to work off the books, so didn’t get any help from the government” says M.

She works as a waitress too, in a bar of Vicenza, a city in northern Italy. She has a so-called grey job: formally, it is a part-time but actually, she works full-time, receiving part of her salary under the counter. She is terrified of losing her job.

Young Italians are among the most affected by the pandemic-related economic crisis.

G. is 35 and works as a public relations freelance: “I’ve been working since I’m 21 and I’ve never seen a fixed-term contract in my life. Working night and day I managed to earn €1,800 net a month, but now with the excuse of the crisis the small companies and startups I work for are postponing payments, or asking me huge discounts”.

Immigrants are also a category at risk.

Ibrahima comes from Senegal, and lives in Venice.

“There is no work here, there are few tourists. I used to live thanks to a few jobs in construction, but not anymore,” he tells EUobserver.

Ibrahima is ashamed to beg. He wants to find a job as soon as possible, so is going to Venice’s Riviera, hoping to find a few gigs.

There is concern in the streets of northern Italy, the economic engine of the country.

In wealthy cities like Vicenza or Padua many shops are closed, open ones are often half-empty. In big cities like Milan or Turin, rows at the Mounts of piety are growing; some get up at dawn to make sure they can pawn a necklace or a wedding ring.

The ‘new poor’

Italy is experiencing a surge of ‘nuovi poveri’ [the new poor]; people who managed (hardly) to make ends meet before the pandemic now find themselves in a very difficult situation.

In the view of Michele Raitano, associate professor of economic policy at Sapienza University of Rome, “there is a great risk that, just like the crisis of 2008, the economic crisis caused by the Covid-19 emergency will cause an increase in socio-economic inequality”.

Alberto Colaiacomo is head of communication at Rome’s Caritas, the charitable arm of the Italian Bishops Conference.

“In April and May we helped 7,000 more people in Rome alone, people we had never seen before the lockdown” he says.

Sectors that had managed to withstand the 2008 economic crisis are seriously struggling now.

For example, the Filipino community in Rome has always been able to help its fellow citizens, says Colaiacomo. But with the Covid-19 emergency, many Filipinos employed as servants in the homes of wealthy Romans lost both work and housing, and had to turn to Caritas.

“Romans who worked illegally or with precarious contracts, especially in construction, bars and restaurants were also in serious difficulty,” adds Colaiacomo. “Workers in the entertainment industry also needed help”.

In the view of David Benassi, professor of sociology of economic processes and labour at the University of Milano-Bicocca, “the lockdown compromised the precarious balance of many people and families”.

€800?

According to the national statistics agency Istat, 36 percent of Italian households are unable to cope with an unforeseen expenditure of €800, he points out.

This confirms the vulnerability of large sections of the population, who did not have access to extraordinary government aid during the lockdown, or had it only late.

“Fortunately, when the pandemic broke out the Citizens’ Income was already functioning, helping (relatively) many households” Benassi adds.

Citizens’ Income is an anti-poverty measure launched in early 2019 by the Five Star Movement, the largest party in the current centre-left government coalition.

Harshly-criticized by the lobbies of entrepreneurs and many politicians, especially from the centre and the right, Citizens’ Income is much appreciated by the poorest Italians, particularly in the south.

It is not enough, however, nor is it the magic bullet for a fragmented, chaotic welfare.

G., the PR freelance, is concerned about his future. “I’ve always been a good student but unlike many friends of mine, I have not inherited homes, large sums of money or businesses from my family. Italy is unfair; it doesn’t help those who deserve it”.

According to Benassi “social mobility has weakened. The children of the rich remain rich because they go to better schools and are in the right circles. The children of the poor remain poor”.

Enrica Morlicchio is professor of economic sociology at the University of Naples Federico II. “1.1 million children live in families in absolute poverty” she says. “They don’t have adequate housing nor sufficient food, and live in conditions of severe crowding”.

For many of these children the only chance is to study, graduate in some scientific or technical subject and emigrate to big cities of northern Italy or abroad.

But schools had to close due to the emergency, forcing pupils to attend lessons online. An interruption that could compromise the entire educational career of many.

“57 percent of poor children live in houses with no Internet connection; many cannot count on the support of their parents for distance learning. That’s why it is not enough to provide tablets and devices to those who don’t have one,” Morlicchio says.

Family continues to be important in Italy. Probably too much.

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