05.21.137:15 AM ET

Study: Italy's Children Face Bleak Future

A new report warns that Italy's children are lagging far behind the rest of Europe due to creeping poverty and high dropout rates, Barbie Latza Nadeau reports.

There are more than 720,000 children across Italy living in absolute poverty right now, making the country one of the worst places in Europe to be a child these days, according to a new report by Save the Children Italy as it launched a “Childhood Alarm” initiative on Monday.

What this statistic means in practical terms is that those children do not have enough food to eat; they lack proper health care including vital vaccines and standard hearing and eyesight checks; and, in many cases, they don’t go to school—or if they do, they are often too hungry or distracted to concentrate. It also means that their childhood is not focused on living for the moment, like it is supposed to be. It is focused on surviving the moment.

Save the Children’s latest forecast for Italy is grim at best. On Monday, the organization staged protests in 16 Italian cities, marching out children in front of some of the country’s most well-known monuments to make a dreary point. In front of the leaning tower of Pisa, children held out haunting, life-sized red cardboard cutouts of impoverished children their own age, meant to represent the nation’s lost generation with signs like “My future has been stolen” and “My food has been stolen.” In front of the Colosseum in Rome, children held similar life-size placards of real kids whose dreams consist of a warm meal and the chance to go to school. The shock initiative, which will runs through June 5 with educative and awareness demonstrations across the country, is meant as a wake-up call for the country’s politicians.

Organizers say that unless action is taken soon, the future will be hopeless for a growing number of Italy’s youngest children and adolescents. Italy ranks seven times below the European average on 12 standard childhood socioeconomic indicators like access to good nutrition, regular education, social inclusion, overall economic outlook and future employment opportunities. Only Greece and Bulgaria rank lower in the organization’s European study. “We are afraid for the future of the children of this country,” said Valerio Neri, director general of Save the Children Italy. “Looking at all the indicators, the outlook for Italian children is extremely negative.”

Italy’s debilitating recession, now in its second year, has compounded the problem. The Save the Children study also points to a disturbing dropout rate, which means the current crisis will be felt for years to come as today’s impoverished children become uneducated or unskilled adults. One in five school-age Italians—18 percent of adolescents, far above the European average of 10 percent—abandon their education after middle school, around age 14, either to go to work in the black market or in their family’s businesses, or to help care for younger children so their parents can eke out a living. Sometimes they drop out because parents can no longer afford to keep them in school, either because they cannot pay for books, meals or transportation, or, worse, because they feel embarrassed that they cannot afford proper clothing and shoes. Of those who do complete high school, only a small fraction—less than 30 percent—will enroll in university. If they do make it through university and earn a degree, they face unemployment that hovers around 40 percent for university graduates. Given the statistics, it is no great surprise that in education opportunities, Italy ranks fourth-worst in Europe, ahead of only Malta, Portugal, and Spain.

But perhaps the most disturbing stat to come out of the Save the Children report is that the Italian state has virtually abandoned its youth. Italy ranked 22nd out of 27 in the dubious list of failed states when it comes to investing in amenities for children. Only two out of 10 Italian children now attend public daycare and preschool centers, which means parents often can’t work because they cannot find adequate child care. Public amenities aside, Italian cities are also decreasing their public playground and park spaces at a rate of 111 acres a day due to what is termed as “cementification” due to expansion of industry. Save the Children estimates that seven of every 100 Italian children grow up in the shadow of polluting factories.

When amenities do exist, many families are too poor to offer even basic opportunities to their children. Nearly 20 percent of Italian children have not been to a movie theater in the last year, and more than 25 percent do not participate in sports, often because the recession has meant that schools have cut sporting programs. More than 33 percent of Italian children age 6 to 17 have never used the Internet and nearly 36 percent have never used a computer. What’s worse, 39.5 percent of Italian children have never read a book, according to the study.

The future of many Italian children, bleak as it is, could still be salvageable. Save the Children, in conjunction with a number of Italian nongovernmental organizations, has started a variety of basic initiatives in the most impoverished cities across Italy. Some, like in the southern port town of Bari, focus on empowering mothers to break free of the chains of poverty in order to help their children by providing free day care so mothers can look for work. Other programs focus on building community playgrounds where children who are not attending school can at least meet for social interaction, which is crucial in developing vocabulary and exposing children to new ideas. Across the country, a growing number of programs focus on teaching caregivers about proper nutrition so children can break the cycle of malnutrition even when parents have a stretched budget.

As part of the Save the Children campaign, parents were asked to write messages about their children’s future to be posted on the program website. One poignant post seemed to echo the sentiments of the rest. “Children are the purest beings that exist ... they have the right to live a peaceful life, and above all we have the right to do the impossible in order to fulfill their dreams." Sadly, in some parts of Italy, simply surviving childhood has become the most difficult obstacle to face.