Italy's crisis leaves middle class struggling

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Unemployed businessman Enzo Prosperi sits in Milan's Piazza del Duomo each day, protesting at what he calls an "uncivilized Italy". Photo: Enzo Prosperi
16:30 CET+01:00
With unemployment at record levels and some of the highest poverty levels anywhere in the EU, Italy's economic crisis has left many formerly well-off Italians barely able to put food on the table.

Enzo Prosperi, a former executive with Fininvest, once led a charmed life.

Even his surname - meaning prosperous in English - harks back to an era when he took several holidays a year, ate in the best restaurants and owned an apartment in Milan and a holiday home in Tuscany.

But all that has changed.

Prosperi, 61, still dresses each day in a business suit and tie. But instead of going to an office, he heads down to Milan’s Piazza del Duomo, where he stages a “sit-in” opposite the cathedral. It is his way of telling his story about a businessman ruined by “bad law” and “bad policy” as well as a protest against what he calls an “uncivilized” Italy.

He is now planning a demonstration in Milan on December 7th - ‘Reclaim Italy’ - a call to arms to the thousands of entrepreneurs who are victims not only of Italy’s harsh recession, but also of its penalizing bureaucracy.

The changes in Prosperi's circumstances have certainly been dramatic: he lost his homes and separated from his wife, and today has no fixed abode: over the past couple of decades he has slept in parks in Rome, in a campervan and now in a friend’s apartment in Milan.

“I speak to people all day - they are tired and angry with Italy. There is no hope,” he tells The Local by phone.

"If you lose your job, you have nothing."

Prosperi says his troubles began when he left Fininvest, the holding company owned by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, in 1989.

Armed with savings and proceeds from the sale of one of his homes, he set up a film production company. The aim was to make healthcare-related documentaries, but budget cuts to scientific research meant that clients, such as hospitals, could no longer afford to pay for films to be commissioned. The company failed but that didn’t stop the entrepreneur from reinventing himself, this time as the owner of a supermarket in the Tuscan city of Arezzo.

The first hurdle in the new venture was Italy’s infamous bureaucracy: Prosperi spent thousands of euros on renting the premises as he waited for the permit to open. Once open, the business was just beginning to make a profit when things took a turn for the worse after he discovered the company hired to manage the store’s accounts had been issuing false invoices for products never bought. Saddled with debt to suppliers, and himself accused of fraud, Prosperi was forced into bankruptcy.

Legal woes ensued, with Prosperi eventually being convicted of fraud - a wrongful conviction, he claims.

Despite attempts to get the conviction quashed, the criminal record has dented his reputation, with job opportunities since being few and far between, apart from a stint as a coach driver in Europe.

'More Italians falling into poverty'

Prosperi’s situation might be unique – and far from clear cut – and it wasn't triggered by the current recession. Nonetheless, he is one of many once-comfortable Italians now grappling with drastically reduced circumstances. His campaign claims to speak for a population that is feeling “tired, angry and hopeless” about a future that is looking increasingly bleak.

“It is absolutely awful. The government is ruining lives,” he continues.

“Italians have been ignorant - they counted on the government to put everything in order, instead the country has huge debt, and it’s the people who pay...When you think of all the attributes Italy has - monuments, art, tourism, fashion, food, cars - we should all be rich, but we’re not.”

The figures back up this picture of hard-up Italians: Italy’s unemployment rate hit an all-time high of 12.5 percent in October, while thousands of those who are clinging onto jobs are on short-term contracts and often go unpaid for months.

State benefits are also meagre and difficult to obtain, especially for those made jobless by the closure of small to medium-sized businesses.

An EU report in September said that Italy is the only large country in core Europe that suffers from “material hardships”, with one in ten Italians cutting back on basics such as heating and eating meat.


Luisa Bonardi, a mother-of-two from Rome, feels that the situation has become more desperate over the past year.

She has been making cutbacks on food since her husband lost his job two years ago.

“I’ve cut out meat, fish, fruit, everything,” Bonardi tells The Local from outside a branch of Tuodi, a low-cost supermarket, in the north of Rome.

“Food is the only thing you can save on as the bills are fixed and so is rent.”

Bonardi says her two daughters, who are in their twenties and live at home, contribute on the rare occasions they have work.

“Because the situation is so bad for young people, parents have to look after them for longer,” she says.

“Everyone is struggling. Even those who do work are under-paid or are not paid on time.”

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Francesco Marsico, the vice president for the Italian branch of Caritas, the international charity, tells The Local the number of Italians falling into poverty continues to grow, with 12 percent more calling on the charity for food, clothes, medicine and other basic necessities over the past year.

“It is much harder this year than it was in 2012,” Marsico says.

“It’s not that they are homeless or that they are ‘traditionally’ poor people, it’s more that they are in a serious situation having lost jobs...They are families where maybe the father has lost his job and they have children to feed and clothe...They don’t have enough money to buy food or pay the bills.”

An increasing number of Italians in “precarious job situations”, such as those on short-term contracts with low salaries and no social benefits, are also seeking help from the charity, Marsico adds.

“People are mainly on this type of contract nowadays,” he says.

“And not everyone can get employment benefits, especially those working for smaller businesses, many of which are closing each day.”

Marsico says the problem is more acute in larger cities, such as Milan, “where people do not have the support of an extended family”, and therefore compounding the problem of isolation.

“Perhaps they left the south for the north in search of work, for example. People generally have fewer relatives to depend on these days than they might have done in the past, and so more people are alone.”  

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