* New law aims to tackle rising poverty
* Critics say it barely scratches surface
* Italy's welfare system patchy, skewed towards pensions
(Updates with graphic, justice minister quote)
By Isla Binnie
ROME, March 9 Parliament approved on Thursday an
anti-poverty package aimed at providing financial relief to the
growing number of hard-up Italians battered by years of economic
stagnation and high unemployment.
It is the first such attempt in Italy to set up a permanent
safety net for poor families, with the lion's share of the
national welfare budget traditionally earmarked for pensions.
However, opposition parties say it does not go nearly far
enough and the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement (M5S) has
promised a much more ambitious "citizen's wage" should it win
power at the next election, which is due by early next year.
The government says it will offer up to 480 euros ($506) a
month to the needy, favouring couples with young children and
jobless people aged over 55. It has put aside 1.6 billion euros
for 2017 and promises more funding in the years ahead.
The cash will come with strings attached, including demands
that dependent children go to school, that they are vaccinated
and that the unemployed commit to seeking a job.
"It is basically a programme like the ones almost all
European Union countries have, aimed at supporting people living
in poverty," Raffaele Tangorra, the Labour Ministry's director
general for social policies, told Reuters.
The rate of severe material deprivation in Italy rose to
11.5 percent in 2015 compared with a fall in the EU average to
8.5 percent, latest EU data shows. Those living in "absolute
poverty" rose to 4.6 million people, or 7.6 percent of the
population, in 2015, up from 6.8 percent in 2014, national
statistics office ISTAT says.
Critics of the new law say it barely scratches the surface
of the problem, and even the Treasury says that the funds
earmarked so far only would only amount to 660 euros per year
per family for those classified as worst off by ISTAT.
For years, heavily indebted Italy has focused its welfare
resources on the elderly, spending 15.8 percent of its gross
domestic product on pensions - the highest ratio in the OECD
club of developed nations.
ISTAT says less than 1 percent of welfare spending goes on
tackling poverty and social exclusion. Various unemployment
benefit programmes do not run beyond two years, leaving many of
Italy's army of jobless struggling to make ends meet.
Unemployment has hovered close to or above 12 percent since
2013, while youth unemployment has been stuck around 40 percent.
"There is no doubt that today the great emergency in this
country is linked to poverty," Tito Boeri, president of welfare
agency INPS, told a Senate Commission in January.
In December, people in the poorest parts of the country
registered their discontent with a protest vote at a referendum
which forced former prime minister Matteo Renzi from office.
Justice Minister Andrea Orlando, who is running against
Renzi to lead the ruling party, said on Thursday the package's
approval was an "initial response to the message we received in
The law had been waiting for parliamentary approval since
last July, but the government is now committed to activating it
within six months.
The M5S, which heads opinion polls, promises the most
comprehensive welfare assistance of any major party, with a
pledge to top up a single person's income to 780 euros a month,
while a family of four would be guaranteed at least 1,482 euros.
The party, founded by the comic Beppe Grillo, has compared
its plan with a pilot scheme in Finland, which earlier this year
became the first EU country to offer a universal basic income of
560 euros a month for the unemployed.
The M5S says the scheme would cost 17 billion euros a year,
a heavy burden for a nation with one of the EU's biggest debt
mountains, but one the party says is worth shouldering.
"A country that isn't able to help the poor isn't ready to
take on any challenges whatsoever," said Filippo Nogarin, the
M5S mayor of the northern city of Livorno which ran a
micro-trial last year in absence of any national programme.
One hundred unemployed residents received 500 euros a month
for six months in a scheme which will be repeated this April.
"There are lots of people like me (living in poverty). It
was new for us and I was ashamed," said Tito Saccomani, 61, who
received the handouts after his decorating firm folded.
"The state should be like a big mother that thinks of
everyone as her children and doesn't just act strong with the
weak," he told Reuters.
Renzi, locked in a leadership battle within the ruling
Democratic Party (PD), has dismissed the M5S plan, saying with a
basic safety net now in place, the emphasis should be placed
firmly on job creation.
"We need to revolutionise our welfare spending, however, the
answer is not a universal wage but work for citizens," he said
last month following a fact-finding trip to the United States.
($1 = 0.9459 euros)
(Reporting by Isla Binnie; Editing by Crispian Balmer and