Italy’s citizens’ income: on its way out already?

by Miriam Ronzoni on August 24, 2022

The last-but-one Italian Government, led by the 5 star movement’s leader Giuseppe Conte, introduced the reddito di cittadinanza (“citizens’ income”), the first form of universal social welfare scheme that Italy has ever had. In spite of its name, it is not a universal basic income of sorts, but a means-tested guaranteed minimum income which, when relevant/appropriate, is supposed to be conditional on willingness to retrain and accept proposed job offers. This model of welfare provision is, by European standards, nothing new or particularly impressive; yet the Italian welfare state never had a comprehensive system of this kind in place – the status quo before the reddito di cittadinanza was highly piece meal and unequal, with unemployment benefits restricted to certain categories; disability checks very intricately regulated; and no entitlements whatsoever based on sheer need alone.

Now, I am not exactly new to prejudices against welfare recipients, not only by the wealthy, but especially by those who are only ever so slightly better off – I live in the UK. Yet, in a country where the family represents, de facto, the welfare state for many people, and where many families are increasingly incapable of covering that role, I wasn’t prepared for just the level of hatred against the policy which, however anecdotally, I encountered over several conversations this Summer. The measure is now a few years old, having been introduced by the government before the current one. Yet, this was the first chance I had to talk about it at length with family and acquaintances (I had already talked about it with like-minded close friends), both because most people have now had a chance to see it unfold for a bit longer and, especially, because the upcoming elections are making the issue more relevant – the right-wing coalition which is currently set to win has made a pledge to abolish it.

So, in short, everybody I talked to – beyond my like-minded circle of friends from University years – absolutely  hates the policy. Like, really, really hates it. And I am talking mostly about left-of-centre voters. The reasons are fairly predictable. Many complain that people just don’t want to work anymore because, well, they can get the reddito di cittadinanza instead. Similarly, a lot of people are absolutely convinced that there are enormous levels of welfare fraud – and, very predictably, that the majority of it is happening in the South. Again, nothing new, but I was not expecting quite this level of animosity for a reform that has lifted several people out of destitution. Of course, it is true that the means-testing is not working as it should, but this is nothing new in Italy. The country has been growing above EU average lately (so one could at least reasonably expect levels of resentment to mellow down a bit), and many of the people I have talked to have mentioned at least one case of a person for whom the reddito has been a genuine and legitimate life-saver – but no, the general verdict is a resolute condemnation anyway.

One striking element is how many of the conversations I have had involved interlocutors claiming a level of epistemic advantage for themselves. They claimed to have a privileged vantage point (mostly, due to their profession) to judge just how broken and open to misuse the policy is – e.g. how impossible it is to find staff in the hospitality sector or in agriculture. And in response to the objection that, well, the reddito di cittadinanza might push salary offers up as a result, and that’s a good thing, the reaction consisted again, again, in claiming to know, due to expertise on the ground, that employers just cannot afford that.

I am not going to linger on the fairly obvious empirical mistakes at play here, because so many people could do this so much better than me, and because this is well trodden territory for the social sciences. The reddito di cittadinanza was a major gain for Italian social policy; it came about fairly quickly and surprisingly after decades of crippled welfare provision and failed attempts to improve the system; and it may end up being very short lived indeed. Is there a way in which, in spite of the obvious difficulties on the ground (institutional mistrust; deeply rooted prejudices against the South; etc.), the reasons in favour of it could have been communicated better to citizens?




P.M.Lawrence 08.24.22 at 4:03 pm

“Is there a way in which … the reasons in favour of it could have been communicated better to citizens?”

I suspect that that is not the issue, but rather that, in the immortal words of Homer Simpson, “Just because I don’t care doesn’t mean that I don’t understand”. More particularly, I suspect that they do understand correctly that, ceteris paribus and inter alia, various low paid jobs would become unviable on their former basis, but the citizens are not willing or able to make a leap of faith that a transition would lead to a new and viable basis with higher pay rates. I would not be all that confident of such a transition working out myself, what with knowing little of the lags etc. involved.


Phil 08.24.22 at 4:26 pm

The question that comes to mind is what the policy’s social roots were: who, apart from the government, was speaking up for (or praising, or even demanding) the policy. Considering that it emanated from the M5S, I’m guessing it didn’t have any substantial union backing, for example. The problem is, any initiative like this is a major (and positive!) shift in the distribution of the social product, with at least the potential for a shift in power relations coming along behind – and in the absence of some sort of movement pushing for this kind of shift (and making sense of it), people’s natural conservatism will make them mistrustful. Even, it seems, fairly left-wing people. Peccato!


hix 08.24.22 at 8:52 pm

Just had to deal with the German system today. Its just so awfull and dehumanicing. Letter: Appear at x data. New caseworker. No direct mail or phone contacts given as a rule, just the call center and a general mail from which the responsible may or may not receive an email based on a code. So i sent my CV , write about my situation. 1,2 MA, long history of mental ilness better now, but due to CV gap and typical discrimination no one hires me. Point even to some absolutly devastating empirical evidence that disabled workshops are completly useless at “recovering” for anyone much less me (70 “recoveries” in 2017 from the entire system with 300k employed, no other data aviablable. Does not read mail. Security guards at the entrance because you know, welfare receipants are dangerous! Got a 10 minute conversation, which whould have been shorter if i had not asked questions activily, proposes to work for 1 Euro a hour at a disabled workshop as a mover* (which of course is not a disabled workshop according to him because, hey its a different department, run by the same people doing the same things which does not technically require to be disabled….)

Sort of off topic, and not even the full story of incompetence and disragerd of that one day, just fealt like mentioning it.

*Might be 3 Euro, either way, should not even be legal to employ me in such a manner below minimum wage, there are loopholes that allow such, just don´t see how those even apply here….


Timothy Scriven 08.24.22 at 11:26 pm

There seems to be a global trend towards dissatisfaction with the labor supply, and cries that no one wants to work anymore everywhere. A lot of people just seem to think that wages in agriculture and hospitality should never rise. Ever. In the US some people genuinely seem to think that, 100 years from now, hospitality jobs should still be paying 7.25 in 2022 dollars. This is a reflection of the divine right of every middle class person to set up an awful coffee shop and become a small business tyrant.

To put all this in perspective, it’s worth noting that the citizen’s wage is only 450 Euro a month.


dibert dogbert 08.25.22 at 12:36 am

They Are Helping The Wrong People!!!!!


LFC 08.25.22 at 12:56 am

…I was not expecting quite this level of animosity for a reform that has lifted several people out of destitution

Did you mean to say several thousand people?


J-D 08.25.22 at 2:10 am

Of course people don’t want to work! What’s wrong with that? Most work is not done because it is deeply personally satisfying; most people do their jobs not because of the personal satisfaction but because they are paid to do them. If people don’t find in their work a deep personal satisfaction which would motivate them to keep doing their work even if they weren’t being paid, that’s not a sign that there’s something wrong with them. Why should people want to work?


nastywoman 08.25.22 at 6:14 am

and isn’t it really… weird? –
and do you think our fellow Italians are as proud about ‘NEVER having to depend on some (socialistic) ‘Nanny State’ as all of the Crazy Right-Wing Racist Science Denying Anglo Saxons?

I mean what ‘Real Proud Right-Wing American’ -(or Brit) is willing to take them ‘gubernment dough’ – and such (un-grabbing) philosophy made it to Italia too?


Pro Bono 08.25.22 at 8:17 am

Some of the problems would go away if there were a genuine citizen’s income, with no means testing and unaffected by other income. Then we could find out what wage people are willing to work for if neither compelled by the threat of starvation nor discouraged by clawback of state benefits.


TM 08.25.22 at 8:47 am

“the right-wing coalition which is currently set to win has made a pledge to abolish it.”

But the right wingers are populists, everybody says so! How can they oppose a policy that benefits the poor and downtrodden?


TM 08.25.22 at 9:05 am

One thing to be kept in mind is the extent to which the poor (including the working poor in low income industries) in Western Europe are disproportionately immigrants without political representation. This explains to some extent why policies that benefit primarily the poor tend to be so difficult to implement and are always attacked by the right wing in veiled or not so veiled racist tones. The hard left likes to complain that the center left cares too much about middle class voters instead of their traditional “working class” base but this traditional “working class” (which has shrunk anyway) is dominated by immigrants who don’t vote. Progressive economic policy must take along the middle class.

(As an aside, the term working class is often used in pretty arbitrary ways anyway – nurses and teachers are no less working class than truck drivers.)


Vanya 08.26.22 at 3:41 pm

@TM – isn’t it a truth universally acknowledged that “populists” invariably represent the lower middle class/more affluent working class (aka “backbone of the nation”,”real [Americans][Italians]etc.”) angry at the professional classes and concerned about their own precarious economic status? Railing against the poor and downtrodden (aka “parasites”, “welfare cheats”, “immigrants”, etc.) is a populist trope.


MisterMr 08.26.22 at 8:23 pm

I have some unrelated observations:

The first is that the previous and now lame duck Draghi government already had discussions about scrapping the RdC. This is because the Draghi government was a big coalition government that included Berlusconi and the Lega, who hate the RdC, and also a part of the center left PD party hated it, although I suppose it is the part that now got diveded from it and is trying to create a centrist coalition (yes this is my answer to TM@11).
A consequence of this is that leftish parties, in particular the PD, didn’t defend the RdC very much.

The second is that the RdC is generally defended on ethic grounds (it helps the poor) but rarely on efficiency grounds, which makes people think that is an unefficient policy (in reality Italy has a problem of low demand, so the RdC is a good policy in terms of efficiency).

Third, the RdC is part of what we could call keynesian policies, but as the italian government is budget constrained by the EU, paying for it means scrapping other benefits/services, or either pumping up taxes (but also leftish parties are exitant in this).


Matt 08.27.22 at 5:48 am

I don’t have anything of substance to add tot he discussion, but wanted to thank Miriam and many of the commenters to this and her earlier post for an interesting discussion. To say I’m mostly ignorant of Italian politics would probably be too generous to me, so it’s been interesting and informative to read the posts and discussion. Thanks!


Tm 08.27.22 at 9:45 am

„but as the italian government is budget constrained by the EU“

Is it now? The EU has managed to put together an unprecedented stabilization package of which Italy is expected to be the major beneficiary, to the tune of 200 billion. Interestingly, Meloni has adamantly opposed the package.

Which raises the question: how do you campaign – successfully – on a platform of „we don’t want any stinkin‘ Brussels money, we don’t need those 200 billion“ when in fact everybody knows that you desperately need them (and will of course take them)? Are voters really that dumb, or that oblivious?


engels 08.27.22 at 10:44 am

Informative but depressing.

“Is there a way in which … the reasons in favour of it could have been communicated better to citizens?”

The way I see it is that without something like UBI (at a decent level) everyone with a paid job (or unearned income) is sponging off the unemployed.


MisterMr 08.27.22 at 7:23 pm

“Is it now? The EU has managed to put together an unprecedented stabilization package of which Italy is expected to be the major beneficiary, to the tune of 200 billion.”

Relative to what Italy could do if it was monetary sovereign, it is. The stabilisation package is not supposed to be permanent, but the RdC is, so the government still cannot just expect to cover the RdC with a una tantum package.

“Interestingly, Meloni has adamantly opposed the package.”

She speaks of trying to renegotiate it, she is not opposed, she actually wants to change the rules to be able to pay for non-green energy investiments because of the Ukraine crisis. Here an extract from the website of her own party (google translated):

The PNRR is a valuable tool for Italy. We are talking about 191 billion, of which 69 non-repayable and the other 122 on loan. A burden that risks weighing especially on our children, who could pay the price for any wrong choices.
We are talking about an option allowed by art. 21 of Regulation no. 2021/241 implementing the Next Generation EU, which provides that in the presence of “objective circumstances, the Member State concerned may submit a reasoned request to the Commission to submit a proposal intended to modify or replace the Council’s implementing decisions”. Fratelli d’Italia is aware of the importance of PNRR and is well aware that these resources cannot be wasted, as has happened too many times with ordinary European ones. If on 25 September the Italians will give us their trust and the mandate to govern the nation, it is our firm intention – in compliance with the European Regulation of the Next Generation EU and in agreement with the Commission – to create the conditions for the PNRR resources to favor concretely the growth, innovation and development of Italy.
Giorgia Meloni
President of the Brothers of Italy


Zamfir 08.28.22 at 6:55 pm

Relative to what Italy could do if it was monetary sovereign, it is.
That’s not so obvious? Before the Euro, Italy was the prime example of the limits to monetary sovereignty – borrowing on the market had become extremely expensive, while monetary financing caused immediate inflation and devaluation.


MisterMr 08.28.22 at 11:17 pm

@Zamfir 18

True, but the devaluation thing has its advantages in terms of competitivity, and the borrowing wasn’t really so expensive when you account for the inflation and devaluation.

It is true though that when Italy entered the euro people were tired of inflation and wanted a more stable currency, I’m not trying to blame everything on the EU.

But is still the case that as things are now being part of the Euro means that Italy has to adopt a more austerian set of policies that it would if it wasn’t part of the Euro, and this has effects that, in my view, play to the advantage of right wing populist parties.

Then it is possible that, if Italy was still on the Lira and there was high inflation, rwp parties would blame this on the left (this happened in the past and I think is happening against Biden), so on the whole I can’t say how big is the effect.

But as things are now, and on the specific issue of the RdC, it is evident that if you have governments that since 30 years are basically obsessed by the debt limits, the idea that the RdC might be wastful is quite natural (though wrong, I’ll stress this).


TM 08.29.22 at 8:54 am

MisterMr 17: my information is that Meloni adamantly opposed the package in parliament last year. Now of course she has changed some of her talking points but still if she had had her way, Italy would have lost out big time. Am I getting this wrong?

Re 17, 18, 19: Is it the EU’s fault that Italy doesn’t have a decent welfare system? I’m not buying it. EU membership has advantages and disadvantages for Italy, the advantages almost certainly far outweighing the disadvantages in the grand scheme of things. But even if the balance were not so clearcut I find it preposterous to think that Italy couldn’t find ways to pay for this relatively inexpensive program (7-8 billion per year). Also, EU debt and deficit limits have been practically irrelevant these last few years.


MisterMr 08.29.22 at 5:56 pm

@TM 20

About Meloni’s opposition to the package, IMHO she just opposed it because she had to oppose everything the government did: her party was nasically the only opposition party because the Draghi government was a big coalition including both leftish parties and rightish parties (Lega and Berlusconi), so Meloni had to differentiate her brand from lega, that previously had a much larger voter base (she played it well and now the situation is the reverse). I wouldn’t take that kind of opposition too seriously.

It is partly the EU fault that Italy doesn’t have a decent welfare system, because until recently the theory at EU level was that italian economic problems were due to a job market not flexible enough, that is econospeak to say that italian workers had too much bargaining power (this is linked to new keynesian theories about inflation and sticky wages). The RdC was indeed opposed by the EU if I remember well, and the M5s had to take a somewhat anti EU stance.

I am very pro EU, and in fact I would like a United States of Europe. That said, something is the EU as an istitution, and something else are EU policies, that I believe have been shortsighted and tilted towards austerity.

Partially related: nobody seems to give much weight to this, but there is an “Italexit” party that is expected to get 3% of the vote.
I think it will go nowhere, but who knows.


TM 08.30.22 at 11:23 am

An analysis, with an interesting comparison with Greece:

Minimum income reforms in crisis-ridden EU: social conditionality in the shadow of austerity


Taj 08.30.22 at 3:12 pm

Is it reasonable to dismiss concerns about welfare fraud in south Italy as a northern prejudice? I’ve the impression that social science generally treats the difference in civic cooperation between north & south as an established fact – really the canonical example of a regional cultural difference.

Looking around for evidence to back this up, I found e.g. the first graph here:
Apparently a large-scale phenomenon!

I’m not saying this would make the RdC a bad policy – I don’t know enough to say. It just seems unfair to portray its critics as though they’re Republicans fretting about hallucinatory ballot fraud.


MisterMr 08.31.22 at 12:00 pm

@Taj 23
“Is it reasonable to dismiss concerns about welfare fraud in south Italy as a northern prejudice?”

It’s not a matter of prejudice, it is simply the case that, as in the south there is way more unamployment than in the north, there are many more people who rely more on government support, hence frauds are more common.

As far as tax avoidance is concerned, consider that while more persons evede tax in the south as a percentage of the population, tax evaders in the north are on average richer, so they evade more money, so that on the whole there is more per person average tax evasion in the north than in the south (or at least so it was some years ago when I read these data in a paper).

“really the canonical example of a regional cultural difference”
This is a rather problematic point, in particular because it feeds into negative stereotypes that northerners have about southerners. My opinion (many italians, expecially in the north, would disagree) is that the causation is the reverse: low employment and bad economy in the south create the conditions that favour these bad behaviours, and this causes this apparent cultural difference, but southern italians who live in the north (who are really a lot since there has been continuous internal migration since the endo of the 19th century) are not particularly more tax evaders than northern italians AFAIK.

Finally, please note that the “regioni” are not omogeneous:
Lombardy, where I live, has approx 10 millions inhabitants, roughtly 20% of the italian population (it’s the biggest regione in terms of population); it has the lowest rate of tax evaders, but the ones who evade evade for a lot of money because it is also the richest and most industrialized regione, it has a pro-capite GDP of 38.000€.
Calabria, the one with the super high evasion rate, is a very very rural regione with approx 1.5 millions inhabitants (it takes 7 Calabrias to make 1 Lombardy), it has a pro-capite GDP of 17.200€.
So we are comparing places with a very different economic structure; this difference in size and economic structure IMO is more relevant than supposed cultural differences.

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