March 30, 2006

Economy Is Key Vote Issue for Struggling Italians

By Silvia Aloisi

ROME (Reuters) - Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi keeps telling Italians to ignore the doomsayers and be positive, but ask Anita how she's getting on, and her bright blue eyes fill with tears.

The 62-year-old widow gets up at 5:30 a.m. every day to sell meat at a market in Rome because her pension of 780 euros ($950) a month is not enough to live on.

Her son has tried his hand as a computer technician, a warehouseman, an electrician and a factory worker but cannot find a stable job, so at 30 he is still living with her.

Her daughter, married with two children, works for an insurance firm but moved out only recently because she and her husband could not afford to rent an apartment.

"I have worked all my life and look at me, at my age I am having to do miracles to get to the end of the month," said Anita, a former teacher.

"I have no money to spend on myself. I can't afford to go on vacation have my hair done, buy clothes. You see this?" she said, pulling her red sweater from under a spotless apron. "It was my mother's. She died 10 years ago."

With the stagnant economy dominating the debate ahead of the April 9-10 general election, many Italians say they are struggling to make ends meet and feel anxious about the future.

Berlusconi, Italy's richest man, says things are not that bad and accuses his center-left rival Romano Prodi -- who is leading in opinion polls by between 3.5 and 5 percentage points -- of exaggerating the country's economic woes.

"Where is the crisis?" he said in a recent outburst at a meeting of business leaders.

"It's not true that Italy is going downhill, it's a lie, a story deliberately invented by those who want to spread pessimism and force the government out."

However, for Italians worried about making every cent count such unflinching optimism can sound out of touch with reality.

"When I hear politicians talk like that, I wonder if they live in another country," said Ciro D'Antonio, a 31-year-old engineer with a multinational company in Naples.

"I have been working for two years and I am about to get married, but with my 1,200-euro monthly salary I know I'll be struggling," he said.


Italy posted no growth in 2005 for the second time in three years, its exports have been losing market share since the mid-1990s, its public debt rose last year for the first time in a decade and its budget deficit was the highest since 1996.

Surveys say Italians are feeling the pinch, painting a picture of malaise that is a far cry from Italy's image as a land of carefree people enjoying the good things in life.

A study by research institute Eurispes said nearly one in four families -- about 15 million Italians -- were either poor or at risk of slipping into poverty.

Fifty-eight percent of those interviewed said they had problems getting to the end of the month and about 70 percent said they were cutting down on vacation, gifts and nights out.

Stroll down the elegant streets of the city center in Rome and Milan, with their glossy designer shops, and the idea of economic hardship could not seem more remote.

Yet, social workers more accustomed to dealing with the chronic destitution of homeless people or jobless immigrants report that a growing number of ordinary Italians are showing up at charity centers asking for help.

"They just come with their bills," said Vincenzo La Monica of Catholic charity Caritas in the Sicilian city of Ragusa.

"Many are people who were doing OK until something unexpected happened -- a divorce, a member of the family falling sick, the loss of a job, but also the birth of a baby," he said.


Analysts say it is not so much the number of poor that is growing because of the sluggish economy, but rather social inequality, with two groups of people the hardest hit: employees on a fixed salary, whose purchasing power has fallen, and temporary workers who cannot rely on a steady income.

Most Italians blame the introduction of the euro and sky-rocketing housing prices for a sharp rise in the cost of living that they say the government has failed to acknowledge and pay rises have failed to match.

"I haven't paid the rent in four months because it has become too expensive," said 58-year-old Elisa D'Ottavi, one of thousands of people at risk of eviction in Rome.

Younger Italians, often depicted as pampered "mammas' boys" who live with their parents well in their 30s, appear equally ill at ease. They say the proliferation of temporary work contracts penalizes them and keeps them in a state of "precarieta"' (precariousness) to which they see no end.

"It just means you can never plan for anything, you never feel secure," said Cristina, a 33-year-old with an art history degree who jumps from one short-term job to another and doubles as a tourist guide.

Perhaps more worryingly, many scrimping Italians seem to have little faith in either Berlusconi or Prodi offering them a brighter future.

"One is saying that everything is fine, the other is promising things that nobody knows how he will achieve," said Claudio, a 55-year-old grocer in Rome.

"I still don't know who to vote for. All I know is that this country needs to turn the corner," he said.