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Italy launches 'citizen's income' scheme to combat poverty

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Italy launches 'citizen's income' scheme to combat poverty
A tax centre employee preparing paperwork for citizens income applications. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP
09:03 CET+01:00
Italians queued at tax offices yesterday to sign up for the "citizen's income", a new social security payment that was a key promise of the populist government aimed at ending poverty for millions.

"If it works, then it's a good idea... we hope so in any case," said pensioner Paolo Scaglione, who had come to drop off the application for his daughter, a single mother.

"There are many who will try to get it, we must see what will happen after, if it will solve anything," he said.

He was one of thousands of people applying at Italian post offices and tax assistance centres (CAF) yesterday.

The reddito cittadinanza, or "citizen's income", was a flagship measure promised by the Five Star Movement (M5S) when it won elections last year, forming a government in June along with the far-right League.

A woman fills out a form yesterday at a tax centre in Rome. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

The policy is aimed at the more than five million people living below the poverty line in Italy. Though it’s often mistaken for a form of universal basic income, it is in fact more like the unemployment benefit schemes seen in many other European countries.

Payments of €780 will be available to to low earners and jobseekers with a household income below €9,360 per year who sign a form declaring themselves immediately available for work.

The government says the measure is aimed at alleviating ‘emergency' levels of poverty in Italy. Italy's previous unemployment schemes offered a far smaller amount of money and little help with finding work.

The scheme's official website was launched last month, but was not fully operational until today.

Screenshot: The homepage of the ‘citizens' income' website.

“We were expecting more people”

Despite fears that officials would be overwhelmed by hordes of people seeking the payments, Italian television said queues were reasonable throughout the country.

"We heard on the news that the CAF would first see people whose surnames begin with an A or B, to avoid chaos," said Mariela Pinzon, an Italian resident of Colombian origin. 

"My name starts with a P so I might have to come back," said Pinzon, one of the first in when the doors opened on Wednesday morning.

"If it works as we were promised it would, then really yes, it's an excellent system," said Pinzon, an unemployed mother of a teenage girl.

“We were expecting more people, we were expecting a little more, but one has to prepare documents to make this request, and not all of them have yet," said CAF employee Elisabeth Micolano.

Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

The first payments will be made around the end of April or early May, a few weeks before European parliamentary elections, and the programme will cost some 6.6 billion euros this year.

Successful applicants must have been in Italy for at least two years for Italian citizens and 10 years for foreign nationals. 

"Some foreigners have little income, for example I have four children, and a very low income, and I pay rent," said Ruwena, an Italian resident of Filipino origin who moved here in 1992. 

"So I think there will be a lot of foreigners who will ask, and not only foreigners, Italians too."

Politicians had initially insisted the payment would not be available to foreign nationals and the anti-immigrant League has amended the policy to make it harder for non-EU citizens to claim.

The measure will help around 1.3 million families, according to the Italian statistics institute Istat, particularly in the more impoverished south of the country.

On average, low-income families will end up receiving around 5,000 euros more annually.

The money will be paid into bank accounts which can be accessed using a special debit card, which at the moment can be used only to buy food in certain shops.

In future, the cards can be used to pay for clothes or other necessities, the government said. 

Any money left on the cards at the end of the month goes back to the state, an incentive to spend which M5S leader Luigi di Maio hopes will help boost the economy.

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