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poverty in Italy? The economists at ISTAT (the national statistical
institute) can't seem to agree, and they're inclined to slant the numbers
toward the advantage of a state that doesn't want to pay benefits to its
citizens. The Sole 24 Ore (a financial daily) sometimes publishes
statistics from less biased sources. Unemployment and underemployment?
Again, it depends on how you define the terms. But ISTAT does invariably
acknowledge Sicily to be one of Italy's poorest regions in terms of incomes,
and the one taxed with the highest level of perennial unemployment.
The figures --when you can find them-- are never very reliable, but in
order to define our terms let's say that any adult over the age of 21 who
wants to work but cannot find (or create) a job is unemployed. Underemployment
is harder to define, but it's clear that a 28 year-old call center employee
in Catania or Palermo earning just 500 euros per month who cannot afford
to rent an apartment (and therefore lives with her parents) is underemployed
even if she actually works 35 hours per week. It's equally clear that a
family of four can't live on 10,000 euros per year (about 830 euros per
month), so let's make these our benchmarks. Bearing in mind that accurate
statistics are not available, we might estimate unemployment in Sicily at
around 35%, underemployment at about 20%.That said, not all the unemployed
are part of the underclass --more about that later.
This means that around 55% of the population is either unemployed or
underemployed. Shocking, but the dearth of substantive positions advertised
in the local newspapers or on job web sites seems to confirm these estimates,
and just talking to a sampling of a dozen Sicilian twenty-somethings will
convince most sceptics. Incidentally, the ridiculous Italian unemployment
figures regularly quoted in The Economist, indicating Italy's unemployment
rate lower that that of the United States, are nothing short of ridiculous.
In Palermo alone, there are thousands of families on the waiting list
for public housing (case popolari), and it's not extremely unusual to see
men --and even women-- begging on the streets in wealthier neighbourhoods
such as Via Libertà; they leave their poorer areas daily for these
greener pastures. Public housing projects are no paradise, yet in Palermo
and Catania they occupy vast districts. Then there are the gypsies (Roma)
and other illegal immigrants who live completely below the radar, though
for our purposes we'll focus on the Italians.
Not all of the unemployed or underemployed are part of a perpetual underclass;
a young , underemployed Catanian or Palermitan might well be the son or
daughter of an employed professor, physician or architect. However, it would
not be overzealous to regard at least 50% of the unemployed and semi-employed
as part of a perpetual urban proletariat; that would leave us with just
over 25% of the general population and probably an accurate estimate. Here
"on the ground," walking among the vast high-rise slums of Palermo,
Catania and even Messina, the idea that as many as one in four of Sicily's
urban residents are part of a socio-economic underclass is less startling.
Add to this the poor educational level of these "forgotten" Sicilians
and you have an ugly picture.
The sociological side of poverty is almost as important as the economic
factors which create a permanent underclass, but notoriously difficult to
pin down because lifestyles and values can be subjective. Folk culture is
not, in itself, an indicator of endemic social poverty. Crime rates, on
the other hand, clearly are. Palermo, Sicily's largest city, with a population
of just under a million, has two large high-security prisons, with medium-security
facilities nearby (in places like Termini Imerese up the coast). It's well-known
that (per capita) Italians read fewer books per year that the citizens of
just about any country in the European Union.(in some years the Greeks read
fewer books than the Italians); it's amazing how few bookstores and public
libraries there are in Sicily's most populous city. I recall with sadness
how, a few months ago, I was walking past a book store in central Palermo
where young clerks were standing outside querying passers-by about the last
book they'd read and a middle-aged woman curtly responded, "Non leggiamo
libri noi." ("We don't read books.") The point is that being
part of the underclass isn't just a question of not having much money.
Yes, we are speaking in generalities. It's amazing that so little has
been written about Sicily's underclass except in the context of material
about the Mafia or Giuseppe Pitrè's condescending
historical observations about the "common folk."
In his book Mind the Gap (2004), Ferdinand Mount, an Englishman,
describes the British underclass. The roots of Britain's lowest socio-economic
classes surely differ from those of Sicily's. For comparison, Mount mentions
various influences dating from the nineteenth century, such as the dehumanising
effects of technology, the decline of faith and religion among the poor
(i.e. suppression of the minority churches), and the emergence of the welfare
(or "nanny") state. While his ideas certainly apply to Great Britain,
Sicily's underclass owes its origins and continued existence to parallel
but far different causes and influences. Here are a few suggestions as to
First, the Industrial Revolution never made great inroads into the fabric
of Sicilian life and society. The Florios were exceptional; Sicily remains
underdeveloped industrially. As recently as 1948, the island's economy,
like that of the rest of the country, was essentially agrarian, but Italy's
industries developed in the north, not in the regions south of Rome. In
those days it was perhaps still convenient for the dwindling landed aristocracy
to keep the "lower orders" in their place, but this power was
later supplanted by the iron fist of corrupt politicians and organised crime
--often working in tandem.
Second, while the first public (state-funded) schools in England were
opened in the 1870s, most of Sicily's were not established until after 1920.
Before that time, the Catholic schools, numerous though they were, could
not hope to educate more than a fraction of the young. Consequently, hardly
anybody could read. As recently as 1900, Palermo had no major public hospital,
even as the Teatro Massimo (then Europe's largest opera house) was being
completed. Illiteracy was rampant well into the 1940s, and where there is
little literacy it is natural that there is little will to learn from books.
Rare is the Sicilian who has inherited a book or two (even a family Bible)
from an ancestor who lived before 1900. Sadly, the lack of appreciation
for the written word continues in too many Sicilian families today.
Third, despite some social mobility, Sicily still has a comparatively
small middle class, and active altruism (in a practical,
collective sense) is all too rare. Here an example will serve to illustrate
a point. In much of Europe and America various charities (outside the church)
in support of the poor or disadvantaged are undertaken by society's "aristocrats."
In Sicily, the aristocrats, whether of actual noble
families or the bourgeoisie, have rarely sought to assist the less privileged
among us. Precious little is collected to help the Sicilian poor. This has
not changed. The Catholic Church, for its part, has never assumed a charitable
role commensurate with its relative wealth or proportionate to the vast
size of the Sicilian underclass. This is not to suggest that the Church
can be expected to do everything, but She has been remarkably inactive and
even silent for too long. Biagio Conti's mission hospice for the homeless
in Palermo is a beacon of hope (for locals and foreigners alike) but it
is not, strictly speaking, sponsored by the Church. Among the people themselves,
envy and jealousy, not charity or empathy, have been the rule of the day
for a long time. An old Sicilian proverb goes, "If your neighbour's
house is on fire fetch water to save your own!"
Fourth, in a parallel to the situation in Great Britain, Italy's television
networks, both public and private, offer little of intellectual or cultural
value (Tobias Jones makes this point eloquently in The Dark Heart of
Italy) while, in the schools, the teaching of subjects such as English
is mediocre at best. Instead, the state encourages betting in public lotteries
and the purchase of cigarettes sold through the state "monopolies."
It's astounding how little anti-cigarette advertising is promoted by the
health ministry. It is disheartening indeed to see that a tobacco shop (which
also sells lottery tickets) is the most profitable enterprise in a poor
neighbourhood. One might almost be forgiven for suspecting that this was
part of a grand scheme, a sort of conspiracy, to keep the poor ever-impoverished
and irreparably ignorant.
Fifth, organised crime (the Mafia)
with its extortion and economic control, and certain related but often distinct
social practices (such as preferments or "recommendations" for
everything from a job to a business permit), preclude
any serious development of businesses or much of anything that could help
the underclass. Politicians use questionable methods such as literally purchasing the votes of less-affluent voters. Illegal
work "in nero" is the norm. Often, the state and even the Catholic
Church are virtually absent in certain urban areas. Sicilians seem to enjoy
religious festivals, but church attendance is down; not that the Church
itself has ever challenged the status quo. Gutsy clergy like Brancaccio's
Pino Pugliese, shot dead by the Mafia, are highly exceptional, and social
activist Danilo Dolce --detested by some priests--
died without apparent heirs to carry on his work. Luigi
Sturzo is long forgotten.
Sixth, there is little sense of community outside the smallest towns.
If history is any guide, there seems not to have been any real sense of
civic awareness or community spirit in Palermo or Catania for centuries.
In the larger cities the "popolino" (common people) often
glorify local mafiosi, a phenomenon also prevalent in Naples, which has
its own large underclass. This is diminishing, to be sure, but it remains
a historical factor in the continued existence of a large Sicilian underclass.
One result of all this is that family values among the popolino are now
a bizarre mix of the legitimately traditional and the anachronistic. The
"fuitina" (forced marriage following elopement) has given
way to unwed teenage pregnancy, material over-indulgence ("spoiling")
of children and other social ills. That said, in many cases a too-close-for-comfort
family "network" is often the only thing young Sicilians can rely
on, tribal and limiting as it may be. There's an old Sicilian saying: "Never
educate your children more than yourself." Too many parents among Sicily's
underclass take it literally.
Another recent development whose effects are difficult to gauge is the
"fantasy element" that fosters outlandishly unrealistic expectations
among the young. It's one thing for an adult to purchase a lottery ticket
knowing his chances of winning are slim, but quite another for an untalented
teenage girl to expect an easy career as a show girl, fashion model or television
personality, yet this mentality is commonplace. The underlying problem,
beauty queens aside, is that among Sicily's underclass the young are rarely
encouraged to study or develop any (realisic) job skills. This creates a
viscious circle of ignorance spanning generations. By contrast, Sicily's
immigrant population of Indians, Arabs and Chinese
seems to take a keen interest in their children's educations and career
preparation. A decade or two from now, when the well-educated children of
these immigrants become a serious economic force in Italy (as they have
in Britain and elsewhere), the Sicilian underclass will find itself in an
extremely uncomfortable --and perhaps hopeless-- position, in effect "outclassed"
in their own country.
Italy's economy was already in deep trouble long before the global crisis
and recession of 2008-2009. National debt exceeded GDP and the nation's
bond rating was downgraded drastically. Tourism, one of the few successful
segments of the private-sector economy, was down by 50%, while public agencies
in Sicily found themselves deprived of funds. The city of Catania was nearly
bankrupt, at one point unable to pay for local rubbish collection, while
Palermo could not make the payroll for certain of its public employees.
None of this bodes well for Sicily's poor.
So we arrive at a place where students --when
they deign to go to school-- threaten teachers with knives, where a 40 year-old
woman has had five children by as many men, and where littering the streets
is perceived as a God-given right. No historical cause can justify such
behaviour. To posit a solution to any of this would be ambitious for anybody.
The first step, as always, is to recognise the problem. Before seeking answers,
it helps to at least know what the questions are. Here in Sicily they are
nothing if not complex.
In the world of the Sicilian underclass, where a personal computer and
indeed a pair of eye glasses is a luxury, where children's school books
are photocopies because the hard-cover texts (which the state doesn't pay
for) are too expensive for many families, where just making it financially
from one month to the next can be monumentally difficult, the will to survive
is itself a true "sfida" --the modern Italian word means
"challenge" but its classical Latin root literally means "lack of faith."
Yet the very existence of Italy's underclasses earns from the country's
privileged elite only the crude, scornful and usually cynical remark that
the nation's poor can be easily contented with a daily plate of hot pasta.
Some Britons believe social class divisions to be "Britain's dirty
secret." It's Sicily's "secret" too. God save King
About the Author: Maria Luisa Romano has
written for various Italian magazines, including this one.