Italian populists launch welfare program for poor, jobless

ROME (AP) — Italy’s populist government opened its new minimum income welfare program Wednesday, fulfilling a key campaign promise of the 5-Star Movement to help reduce poverty and spur employment in the eurozone‘s third-largest economy.

The so-called “citizen’s income” is essentially a new system of welfare and unemployment benefits for residents whose household monthly income is less than 780 euros ($882). The program would provide more money to the unemployed than the current jobless benefits.

Eligible residents receive monthly, pre-paid debit cards to pay for groceries, pharmaceuticals, utility bills and rent, among other things. In exchange, able-bodied participants enroll in a job-finding and job-training program. If candidates refuse the first job offer, they face possible longer commutes in subsequent offers.

The scheme, which officially opened for applications Wednesday, is slated to cost the Italian government 7.1 billion euros this year, a projected public spending spree that helped spark months of heated budget negotiations with the European Union.

At about 133 percent of GDP, Italy’s debt load is the second-highest in Europe, after Greece.

Italy also has the third-highest unemployment rate in the EU, hitting 10.5 percent in January. Youth unemployment was 33 percent that month, again second only to Greece, according to EU statistics.

Deputy Premier and 5-Star leader Luigi Di Maio has cited the need to jumpstart the economy and create jobs in spearheading the “citizen’s income” program. He said Wednesday a “revolution” had begun for the estimated 5 million people, including the elderly poor, who in theory could take advantage of the benefits.

“Today we’re keeping a promise,” he said. “The state is finally taking care of the invisibles.”

By Associated Press