Italy: Meloni’s government cuts welfare benefits to thousands of families by SMS, sparking protests

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Giorgia Meloni’s right-wing government is putting an end to benefits for thousands of families and individuals deemed ‘fit to work’.

An estimated 169,000 families across Italy received an SMS in late July notifying them that the benefits they had enjoyed for the past four years would abruptly be cut off the following month.

The benefits, which will be cut off from any families that do not include a disabled person, a minor, or an individual over the age of 65, are part of Italy’ controversial “reddito di cittadinanza” (literally “citizens’ income”), a monthly allowance for families and individuals with low income and the unemployed.

The welfare benefits payment programme was introduced in 2019 by the government led by Giuseppe Conte, a member of the Five Star Movement (M5S) party, and is now being dismantled by the far-right government of Giorgia Meloni.

The citizens’ income was one of the main promises made by the Five Star Movement before coming into power in 2019, despite the concept being deeply controversial in the country and harshly opposed by the right.

Meloni announced her decision to tighten the social welfare system as soon as she came into power as Italy’s new prime minister last year, declaring that it will be completely abolished by 1 January 2024 for the unemployed between the age of 18 and 59 deemed fit to work.

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“We want to transform assistance into employment,” she said during a press conference in November 2022. “There are people who have been taking the subsidy for three years, the state must help these people to find a job.”

Former prime minister Conte, who steered Italy through the Covid crisis, criticised Meloni’s decision saying she was “playing with people’s lives,” and that those in their 50s and 60s currently relying on the citizens’ income will have a hard time retraining and finding new jobs.

According to Italian news media Rai News, an additional 80,000 families will be cut off from the benefits between August and September.

The deluge of SMS messages announcing to families that they will no longer receive benefits sparked fierce protests in the southern city of Naples and its province, which is home to the highest number of recipients. 

The offices of the country’s National Institute for Social Security (INPS) in the region reported receiving hundreds of calls from people asking for a better explanation than the one contained in the SMS. In one of INPS’ offices in Naples, police were called over after a fight reportedly broke out between two people.

The message received by thousands of families reads: “Request for citizens’ income suspended under article 48 of decree 20/23 while waiting to be taken over by social services.” In the original Italian, the message is just 24 words long.

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Starting from 1 September, those who’ve now been cut off from the benefits will receive €350 per month to be used for job training at the country’s unemployment centres.

The suspension of the citizens’ income has sparked a furious debate in the Italian parliament, with Conte accusing Meloni’s Brothers of Italy and the coalition government of trying to “tear apart the country.”

Lawmaker and economist Maria Cecilia Guerra of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) said that the desperation exploded after families’ received the infamous SMS about the citizens’ income suspension was not due to the SMS, but the inability of the government to address the ongoing unemployment issues.

In June, Italy’s unemployment rate dropped to 7.4%, with a total of 23 million and 590 thousand employed people in the country, +0.3%. Despite the positive development, Italy still has one of the highest unemployment rates in the European Union, with the bloc having an average rate of 5.9% as of June 2023.

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