Soup kitchens full as battle rages for Italy’s poor

Salerno (Italy) (AFP) – Mario Conte’s soup kitchen in Salerno serves 140 hot meals every day, but as soaring inflation hits poverty-stricken southern Italy, it struggles to keep up with demand.

And with far-right leader Giorgia Meloni promising to scrap an anti-poverty program if she wins Sunday’s general election, 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 the palm-lined seafront in Salerno, south of Naples.

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

But as usual, it is southern Italy, long plagued by poverty and unemployment, which is suffering the most.

“I pay the rent, the electricity bill, and then I have nothing left to eat,” says Antonio Mela, 60, a former bartender who lives with his brother on a state pension of 500 euros.

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

Energy is a major concern in a country dependent on Russian gas, especially here in the Campania region. According to the Italian Poverty Observatory, the region has the highest number of people struggling to pay their electricity and gas bills.

Citizens income

Rocco Papa, spokesman for Catholic charity Caritas 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 conjunction of many factors, the pandemic, the war, has seriously aggravated the situation,” he said.

Although a familiar story across Europe, Italy, with its low-skilled and rapidly aging population, is unique.

It is the only EU country where inflation-adjusted wages fell between 1990 and 2020, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

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It is also one of six EU countries that does not have a national minimum wage, having instead, since 2019, the so-called “citizens’ income”.

Nearly 2.5 million people claim this allowance for the unemployed, which amounts to an average of 550 euros per month, costing the State 8.3 billion euros this year.

The majority – 1.7 million people – live on the Italian islands or in the south, a region with a large underground economy and where 10% of households live in absolute poverty.

But the benefit has been targeted by fraudsters, and some employers say they are unable to find staff. They accuse young people of preferring to pocket easy money to stay at home.

These payments have become one of the most contentious issues of the election campaign, so much so that Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party, which led the latest opinion polls, has pledged to drop outright and simply the project.

war on poverty

“Citizens’ income has helped tremendously,” said Conte, 70. For a while, many guests stopped coming.

However, rising prices have brought new faces to its doorstep: from divorced fathers to struggling carers, whose low-paid, clandestine work is no longer enough.

The number of people using soup kitchens in Salerno has doubled in recent months, while a canteen run by Caritas in Castellammare, near Naples, has tripled.

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Conte feeds 10 additional families with young children every morning.

The benefit was the brainchild of the populist Five Star movement, which took power four years ago after winning big in the south.

Now trailing the right in the polls, Five Star has pledged to make earnings “more efficient”, introduce a minimum wage and tackle the gender pay gap.

The centre-left Democratic Party (PD) also wants to keep a reformed version of the benefit. He promised similar anti-poverty measures as well as 500,000 new social housing units and free school meals.

Promote jobs

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

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

Instead, it offers a benefit for those most at risk: people with disabilities, people over 60 and families in difficulty with young children.

His right-wing coalition, which brings together the Anti-Immigrant League and the right-wing Forza Italia, has also promised tax cuts to boost growth.

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The latest available polls suggest that Five Star and the Democratic Party’s support for Citizens’ Income could once again win votes in the South – even if not everyone here supports it.

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

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

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