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Money for nothing

Meet the Italian mayor giving his poorest citizens extra cash

A city in Italy is giving its poorest residents $537 a month to survive

Filippo Nogarin is that rare specimen in Italian politics: an unabashed optimist. Elected mayor of the port city of Livorno in 2014, Nogarin is a member of the controversial Five Star Movement, an anti-establishment party founded by the TV comedian Beppe Grillo. Since then, Nogarin has attempted to position himself as a figure for change at the front line of the Mediterranean crisis, fighting for economic justice, social equality, and environmental protections.

In June, the Tuscan municipality launched its most ambitious initiative yet: a basic-income scheme to tackle urban poverty – the first in Italy and one of the first in Europe. With the Five Star movement in a strong position after Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s defeat in Sunday’s constitutional referendum, could promises of a countrywide scheme help them win ground in Italy’s bitterly contested electoral landscape? “The local models are very important, but it is clear for basic income to really work, it must be implemented in a more substantial form at a national level,” said Nogarin.   

The six-month scheme, which saw $537 a month allocated to 100 of the city’s poorest families, might not sound like much, but in Italy, where there is no minimum wage and unemployment payments are dependent on an unforgiving system of contributions, the mayor insists it’s a significant intervention. “It’s a profound crisis, but as with any crisis, it is also a great opportunity,” Nogarin told VICE News. “The main purpose of basic income is to give a sense of dignity to people’s lives, to demonstrate to them that they will not be abandoned.”

While similar initiatives in Canada and Finland might be dealing with larger sums of money and a wider sample of people, the economic situation in Southern Europe makes this kind of organization impossible. The funds – which are paid in monthly installments without any dehumanizing red tape – are better understood as emergency measures to support those struggling to cover basic costs like rent, bills, and food.

Nogarin’s many critics argue that this initiative is little more than political posturing – a stunt that distracts from the need for more profound structural reform. With continuing high unemployment, there are widespread calls for greater investment in state industries. “What’s needed are secure public positions — jobs, not benefits,” said Dario, a local trade union activist. Others, like Lucia, an activist with the Democratic Party, say that the initiative is simply “a cheap attempt to seize votes the center-left is unfortunately missing, to capitalize on the crisis for personal gain. As an initiative to tackle poverty, it just doesn’t add up.”

Nogarin has publicly acknowledged the limitations of the scheme but claims his critics have misunderstood its nature. “One of the great problems [with the previous era of manufacturing] was that Livorno was reduced from a cultural to a predominantly economic community. In the Renaissance this city was a center of artistic beauty; it was culturally and ethnically diverse, tolerant and inclusive.” Basic income, he maintains, is not a question of humanitarian aid but a key way of rebuilding this sense of civic identity. “I’ve never met the recipients, and this is a hugely important point. I don’t want them to see me as a patriarchal figure handing out charity. This is the real power of this scheme: It’s the community helping the community.”

The experiment in Livorno will be extended to another 100 families this January, and the idea is catching on in other Five Star municipalities too. In October the Sicilian city of Ragusa launched its own scheme, and Naples is set to follow early next year.

Nogarin thinks it’s vital his plan is expanded: “If the next government is a Five Star one, I’ll be pushing in Parliament to ensure it is one of the primary policies. Given the nature of this crisis, it isn’t a question of if Italy is ready; it has to be.”

Cover: Johanna Hoelzl/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

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