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COST OF LIVING

Italy’s south hit hard by cost of living crisis as election nears

Mario Conte's Salerno soup kitchen serves 140 hot meals every day but as soaring inflation hits Italy's poverty-stricken south, he is struggling to keep up with demand.

People come to collect a bag of food from Mario Conte's San Francesco soup kitchen, which is helped by the Catholic Caritas charity, on September 20, 2022 in Salerno.
People come to collect a bag of food from Mario Conte's San Francesco soup kitchen, which is helped by the Catholic Caritas charity, on September 20, 2022 in Salerno. Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP.

And with far-right leader Giorgia Meloni promising to abolish a poverty relief scheme if she wins Sunday’s general elections, he fears things will only get worse.

“There will be a flood of people here,” he warned as he handed out food at the San Francesco kitchen, not far from Salerno’s palm-lined seafront, south of Naples.

The eurozone’s third largest economy is suffering a cost-of-living crisis exacerbated by Russia’s war in Ukraine.

READ ALSO: Soaring energy prices push Italy’s inflation to 37-year high

But as usual it is Italy’s south, long plagued by poverty and unemployment which feels it hardest.

“I pay rent, the electricity bill, and then I’ve got nothing left for food,” said 60-year-old Antonio Mela, a former barman who lives with his brother on a 500-euro state pension.

“Everyone is struggling here,” he told AFP, as he took servings of pasta, pork and potatoes, and fruit.

Energy is a major concern in a country reliant on Russian gas, particularly here, in the Campania region.

According to the Italian Poverty Observatory, the region has the greatest number of people struggling to pay electricity and gas bills.

EXPLAINED: How much are energy bills rising in Italy?

Volunteers prepare food at Mario Conte's San Francesco soup kitchen on September 20, 2022 in Salerno.

Volunteers prepare food at Mario Conte’s San Francesco soup kitchen on September 20, 2022 in Salerno. Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP.

– Citizens’ income –

Rocco Papa, a spokesman for the Catholic Caritas charity which helps run the kitchen, said there was a “chronic” lack of work in Salerno, where one in 13 people are at risk of extreme poverty.

“The bringing together of many factors, the pandemic, the war, has seriously aggravated the situation,” he said.

While this is a familiar story across Europe, Italy, with its low-skilled and rapidly ageing population, is unique.

It was the only EU country where inflation-adjusted wages fell between 1990 and 2020, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

EXPLAINED: What is Italy doing to cut the rising cost of living?

It is also one of just six EU countries without a national minimum wage, having instead, since 2019, the so-called “citizens’ income”.

Nearly 2.5 million people claim this benefit for the jobless, which works out on average at 550 euros a month, costing the state 8.3 billion euros this year.

The majority – 1.7 million people – live on Italy’s islands or in the south, a region with a large shadow economy and where 10 percent of households live in absolute poverty.

But the benefit has been targeted by fraudsters, and some employers say it makes it impossible for them to find staff. They accuse young people of preferring to pocket easy money for sitting at home.

These payments have become one of the electoral campaign’s most divisive issues, to the point that Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party, which led the last opinion polls, has vowed to ditch the scheme outright.

READ ALSO: Italian elections: The main campaign pledges made by Italy’s political parties

Rocco Papa, a spokesman for the Catholic Caritas charity which helps run Mario Conte's San Francesco soup kitchen, is pictured on September 20, 2022 in Salerno. Conte fears the 140 hot meals his Salerno soup kitchen dishes out daily will not be anywhere near enough, should Italy's poverty relief scheme be scrapped after Sunday's elections.
Rocco Papa, a spokesman for the Catholic Caritas charity which helps run Mario Conte’s San Francesco soup kitchen, is pictured on September 20, 2022 in Salerno. Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP.

– War on poverty –

“The citizens’ income helped hugely,” 70-year-old Conte said. For a while, many guests stopped coming.

Rising prices have brought new faces to his door, however: from divorced dads to struggling carers, whose badly paid, off-the-books work is no longer enough.

The number of people using soup kitchens in Salerno has doubled over the past few months, while a Caritas-run canteen in Castellammare outside Naples has seen a three-fold increase.

Conte feeds an extra 10 families with young children each morning.

This benefit was the brainchild of the populist Five Star Movement, which swept to power four years ago after winning big in the south.

Now trailing the right in the polls, Five Star has vowed to make the income “more efficient”, to bring in a minimum wage and to tackle the gender pay-gap.

The centre-left Democratic Party (PD) also wants to keep a reformed version of the benefit. It has pledged similar other anti-poverty measures as well as with 500,000 new council houses and free school meals.

READ ALSO: Italy plans to scrap VAT on bread and pasta amid cost of living crisis

– Favouring jobs –

But for Meloni, the citizens’ income is not the solution.

Poverty, she told a rally in Palermo, Sicily this week, “is fought by favouring growth and jobs”.

She proposes instead a benefit for those most at risk: disabled people, the over 60s, and struggling families with small children.

Her right-wing coalition, which brings together the anti-immigrant League and right-wing Forza Italia, has also promised tax cuts to boost growth.

The last available polls suggest Five Star and the Democratic Party’s support for the citizens’ income may once again be winning votes in the south – although not everyone here backs it.

“Young people have to work,” said Mela, as he collected his food from the San Francesco kitchen. “It should be for families, not 30-year-olds.

“And they have to check who’s cheating and who’s not.”

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ITALIAN ELECTIONS

Far right set to take power in Italy after topping vote, exit polls show

Far-right leader Giorgia Meloni came top in Italian elections on Sunday, exit polls suggested, putting her eurosceptic populists on course to take power at the heart of Europe.

Far right set to take power in Italy after topping vote, exit polls show

Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, which has neo-fascist roots, has never held office but looks set to form Italy’s most far-right government since the fall of dictator Benito Mussolini during World War II.

Exit polls published by the Rai public broadcaster and Quorum/YouTrend both put Brothers of Italy on top, at between 22 and 26 percent of the vote.

BLOG: Italian election exit polls suggest victory for Giorgia Meloni

Her allies, Matteo Salvini’s far-right League and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, lagged behind but between them appear to have enough seats to secure a majority in both houses of parliament.

The result must still be confirmed but risks fresh trouble for the European Union, just weeks after the far-right outperformed in elections in Sweden.

Meloni, who campaigned on a motto of “God, country and family”, has abandoned her calls for one of Europe’s biggest economies to leave the eurozone, but says Rome must assert its interests more in Brussels.

“Today you can participate in writing history,” the 45-year-old tweeted before the polls closed.

Turnout was lower than in the 2018 elections.

Meloni had been leading opinion polls since Prime Minister Mario Draghi called snap elections in July following the collapse of his national unity government.

Hers was the only party not to join Draghi’s coalition when, in February 2021, the former European Central Bank chief was parachuted in to lead a country still reeling from the coronavirus pandemic.

READ ALSO: Political cheat sheet: Understanding the Brothers of Italy

For many voters, Meloni was “the novelty, the only leader the Italians have not yet tried”, Wolfango Piccoli of the Teneo consultancy told AFP before the election.

But the self-declared “Christian mother” – whose experience of government has been limited to a stint as a minister in Berlusconi’s 2008 government – has huge challenges ahead.

Like much of Europe, Italy is suffering rampant inflation while an energy crisis looms this winter, linked to the conflict in Ukraine.

The Italian economy, the third largest in the eurozone, is also saddled with a debt worth 150 percent of gross domestic product.

‘Limited room for manoeuvre’

Brothers of Italy has roots in the post-fascist movement founded by supporters of Benito Mussolini, and Meloni herself praised the dictator when she was young.

She has sought to distance herself from the past as she built up her party into a political force, going from just four percent of the vote in 2018 to Sunday’s triumph.

Her coalition campaigned on a platform of low taxes, an end to mass immigration, Catholic family values and an assertion of Italy’s nationalist interests abroad.

They want to renegotiate the EU’s post-pandemic recovery fund, arguing that the almost 200 billion euros Italy is set to receive should take into account the energy crisis.

But “Italy cannot afford to be deprived of these sums”, political sociologist Marc Lazar told AFP, which means Meloni actually has “very limited room for manoeuvre”.

The funds are tied to a series of reforms only just begun by Draghi.

 Ukraine support

Despite her euroscepticism, Meloni strongly supports the EU’s sanctions against Russia over Ukraine, although her allies are another matter.

Berlusconi, the billionaire former premier who has long been friends with Vladimir Putin, faced an outcry this week after suggesting the Russian president was “pushed” into war by his entourage.

It is only one area in which Meloni and her allies do not see eye to eye, leading some analysts to predict that their coalition may not last long.

EXPLAINED: Is Brothers of Italy a ‘far right’ party?

Italian politics is historically unstable, with almost 70 governments since 1946.

A straight-speaking Roman raised by a single mother in a working-class neighbourhood, Meloni rails against what she calls “LGBT lobbies”, “woke ideology” and “the violence of Islam”.

She has vowed to stop the tens of thousands of migrants who arrive on Italy’s shores each year, a position she shares with Salvini, who is currently on trial for blocking charity rescue ships when he was interior minister in 2019.

The centre-left Democratic Party claimed her government would pose a serious risk to hard-won rights such as abortion and will ignore global warming, despite Italy being on the front line of the climate emergency.

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