Italy may conjure up postcard perfect images of beauty, art, and culture, but it is also a country in which nearly 2 million children are struggling to survive.
Every morning, hundreds of thousands of children in Italy’s poorest regions wake up hungry. Some have never used a computer because the schools can’t afford them in the classrooms. Many don’t go to school at all, or when they do they drop out, hoping to find scarce jobs. While their parents try to eke out a living, infants are left alone with young children as caregivers because of a lack of public day care. A growing number of children work as laborers on farms. Others are pushed into the sex trade to help support their families. Thousands live without basic amenities like hot water, regular meals, or simple health care—all in picturesque Italy.
According to a report by UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) issued Feb. 28, Italy has the highest percentage of children living below the poverty line of 25 European nations, and the situation is only getting worse.
“In Italy, there are 1.8 million children living under the poverty line,” says Giacomo Guerrera, head of UNICEF Italy. “We could make this problem go away if only it were a priority on every local community and government agenda.”
This shouldn’t be happening in Italy, Europe’s third-largest economy. Sure, the country is in the midst of an epic financial crisis that saw it nearly default on its deficit late last year. The new interim government under technocrat Mario Monti has also been forced to tighten up the country’s budget. But that’s not the crux of the child poverty problem. After all, it’s hard to cut services that have never existed. In fact, childhood poverty was a problem in Italy long before the current economic debacle.
The divide between Italy’s wealthy north and its suffering south has always been a point of contention for lawmakers in Rome. Italy allocates only 4.4 percent of its total social expenditures on social services for children, meaning only 1.1 percent of the total GDP goes to investing in services like public child care that would allow more parents to work. Private investments from businesses do fill the gap. But in most cases the “Mezzogiorno,” as the poorest regions of the deep south are known, is often overlooked because of the high rate of organized crime that has infiltrated both the public-works sector and local government entities. In recent years companies have received tax breaks for investing in the Mezzogiorno and defying the mob, but many of those companies are now closing factories and heading back north where their investments are safer during these tough economic times.
These attempts to bolster the southern communities as a whole have been moderately successful through the years, though the efforts rarely trickle down to the region’s most vulnerable. Many of the country’s poorest children live in or near the very cities where recent government investments have greatly enhanced the lives of many others. But so many families in the Mezzogiorno live on the edge of the poverty divide that government aid and incentives are never enough to cover everyone. Urban renewal and government investments over the years have provided playgrounds, better schools, and safe sports facilities for communities that have been overlooked for decades. Public child care has also increased, but spots are first given to working parents, so the unemployed who are searching for work don’t qualify, creating a Catch 22 situation.
In most cases, Italy’s very poorest children have fallen through the cracks, and as the country struggles through an economic crisis, there is no expectation that things will get better any time soon. Instead, an increasing number of families with children are joining the ranks of the extreme poor. What meager services are available will have to be spread even thinner.
“In Italy, some 25 percent of children are now at risk of poverty,” Daniela Del Boca, director of CHILD (Center for Household, Income, Labor and Demographic Economies) at the University of Turin. “This proportion is much higher than the average proportion of children at risk of poverty in the rest of the European Union.”
One in two minors in Italy lives in what is considered “absolute poverty,” a condition under which basic needs are not met. According to the UNICEF report, that means families are able to provide only one adequate meal every two days and they often cannot provide necessary medical treatment, either because they cannot access public-health services due to lack of funds for transportation, or they cannot buy simple over-the-counter medicines like aspirin or even Band-Aids for their children. Of the poorest of the poor, 42 percent live in Sicily, 32 percent in Campania, 31 percent in Basilicata, and the rest are spread around the wealthier northern regions, including 8.6 percent in the very wealthy Veneto region.
Italy’s disgraceful inability to bring such a vast majority of minors above the poverty level is compounded by growing job shortages and the lack of many social services, says Del Boca, who had hoped that some of the new taxes instituted by the Monti government, like the IMU (rural property tax) would be used to help fund child care so parents can work. “We were hoping that part of the IMU could be devoted to child care, but it is not and child-care availability will actually be reduced instead,” she told The Daily Beast. She says 42 percent of the neediest families in Italy have three or more children. More than 36 percent have only one wage earner, and nearly 80 percent have no wage earners at all. “The difficulties in work opportunities, both for mothers and fathers, is one of the main reasons for child poverty,” she says. “The other is the lack of public services like child care, which could also support children’s education.”
UNICEF is not the only international organization wagging a finger at Italy’s dismal record. Save the Children has also warned that Italian children today have far less than their parents did when they were young. “The quality of life of our children is incomparable to that of a generation ago,” says Valerio Neri, director of Save the Children in Italy. “There is no more tuberculosis or war to threaten the children, but minors today have to deal with poverty, the scarcity of services, polluted cities, and unhealthy lifestyles. The problems of the economic crisis amplify the risks for these youngsters if there is not an immediate intervention.”
Neri worries that with all the other problems in Italy right now, the investment in children’s futures has been largely ignored. “The children will pay the highest price in the current crisis in Italy,” he says. And that’s a price they simply can’t afford.