The fields in Sicily are blooming in early spring, but the economic reality is harsh. The island has the highest level of poverty in Italy and one of the highest in Europe, as the devastating impact of a lengthy recession struggle to fade.
The city of Ragusa is historically one of the wealthiest in Sicily. But it too has suffered. The city centre has emptied out, and some of its residents even struggle to buy food and pay monthly bills. Vincenzo La Monica, Head of the Observatory for Poverty of the Diocese of Ragusa, said that many people that used to have a normal lifestyle found themselves being the new poor.
According to national statistics office, Istat, those living in absolute poverty in Italy rose to 4.6 million people, or 7.6% of the population, in 2015, up from 6.8% in 2014. And one in four Italians is at risk of poverty or social exclusion. The risk is almost twice as high in the south.
The fight against poverty is turning into a critical battleground in Italian politics ahead of the next elections, due in February 2018 at the latest. The populist Five Star Movement has proposed a guaranteed universal income. And the Democratic Party, which is likely to be led by Matteo Renzi in the next poll, has come back with its own version of income support.
In Ragusa, the Five Star Movement now runs the city and is trying to apply its own version of the plan on a local level by providing a guaranteed income to 250 families for two months. One recipient is 45-year-old Stefania Gurrieri, a Ragusa native with a degree in literature and a disability that has prevented her from finding a permanent job. Moreover, she is single and has no contact with her family. She got 180 euros, which was welcome, though fleeting.
She has a phone but no computer, no TV, no Wi-Fi at home. Only the essential.
Her hope would be that the Five Star plan could be applied on a national level should they win power in the next election in 2018. The check would be much bigger, up to 780 euros per month. But she could also be helped by the Democratic Party plan, which was recently adopted by the government as part of an anti-poverty package aimed at providing financial relief to the growing number of hard-up Italians, battered by years of economic stagnation.
In this first attempt in Italy to set up permanent safety net for the poor, this could offer her up to 480 euros per month. Critics say that Italy doesn't have the budgetary resources to fund the more generous income support proposed by the anti-establishment party and that it would disincentive the search for employment.
Yet, the allure of the guaranteed income is one of the reasons the popularity of Beppe Grillo's movement has risen so sharply in recent years in Sicily, especially among young voters. One of them is Rocco Parisi, a 29-year-old nurse who works and lives in Ragusa.
A lot of people loves this movement because [INAUDIBLE] a big problem about politic corruption everywhere, I think. Right now, this is different-- we think right now, I don't know exactly-- but a different way to see the world right now.
Whether voters believe the Five Star promise on this issue or the Democratic Party's alternative could be pivotal heading into the next general election.