2023-04-20 Fabrizio Perretti

Poor but ... poor

The dossier in the new issue of Economia & Management is dedicated to poverty. Rather than dwelling on causes, factors and solutions, it tries to give us back the different faces of people living in this dramatic condition. Increasingly numerous people - we are talking about one-fifth of Italian families, in 2021 - with whom we live with on a daily basis, often without being aware of it. Yet it is from this awareness that we must start to seek possible solutions. This also and especially applies to companies, which are important players in our economic and social model. Because companies must not only have the social responsibility to look at others, but also the courage to reflect on themselves and understand whether, in addition to producing wealth, they do not also generate poverty.

Dino Risi's famous film “Poveri ma belli” (“Poor but beautiful”) was made in 1956. Two more would follow[1], thus composing a trilogy in which poverty is explicitly referred to in the titles, but is associated - unlike neorealist cinema - with the genre of comedy. Italy in the 1950s is a poor country that has just emerged from the devastation and material destruction of World War II. The 1953 parliamentary survey had indicated that "on average, families in a state of misery would turn out to be 1,357,000, or 11.8 percent of the total; and those in a poor condition 1,345,000, or 11.6 percent. About a quarter of the Italian population would therefore live in poverty." These are dramatic figures, but we are dealing with a country that is in the midst of reconstruction and on its way to the boom and “economic miracle” that will soon follow. A country that is still poor but optimistic about its future too.

In the latest Istat survey (2021), there are 1,960,000 households in absolute poverty in Italy, or 7.5 percent of the total, and 2,895,000 households in relative poverty, or 11.1 percent of the total. About one-fifth of Italian families thus live in poverty. Seventy years later, despite the fact that Italy has long been a developed and wealthy country, poverty still remains a serious problem that affects many families and individuals, compromising their quality of life and jeopardizing their dignity, with percentages not very different from those of the 1950s. The worrying fact is that over the past fifteen years, households in absolute poverty have steadily increased to double (there were 819,000 in 2005).

Poverty in Italy continues to be a complex problem that affects millions of people in different contexts and is concentrated in some of the most vulnerable social groups, such as young people, women, the elderly, immigrants and people with disabilities. These figures, by the way, do not represent the full extent of the problem, as there are other forms of deprivation and social exclusion that are not measured by official statistics. For example, fuel poverty, or the inability to pay utility bills such as electricity and gas, is a widespread problem. Unlike seventy years ago, however, an economic boom comparable to that of the 1960s is not on the horizon. The dream and hope of soaring, of getting better, has been replaced by the nightmare and fear of sliding down, of getting worse. Therefore, we can no longer speak of the “poor but beautiful”, but rather the poor without any "but."

Understanding the causes of poverty is crucial to devising solutions. Currently, millions of Italians live in poverty or are at risk of falling into poverty due to factors such as unemployment, low pay, job insecurity and limited access to public services. Another factor contributing to poverty in Italy is low education. People with low levels of education have fewer job and income opportunities, and are more vulnerable to unemployment and job insecurity. In addition, lack of education limits access to services and opportunities, preventing people from emerging from economic hardship. If the causes of poverty are as stated above, then the solutions, while not simple, should be equally clear: increase employment, increase wages, make work stable, increase education and access to public services. If, however, the factors are many and interrelated, then the risk is like Agatha Christie's novel “Ten Little Indians” in which, in the end, there seems to be no culprit ("and then there were none").

When its causes are analyzed or highlighted, poverty becomes a sensitive and controversial issue. Indeed, causes do not only indicate a set of factors, but also highlight responsibilities in the hands of certain individuals. As Brazilian Archbishop Hélder Câmara pointed out half a century ago now, "When I feed a poor person, everyone calls me a saint. But when I ask why the poor have no food, then everyone calls me a communist." Indeed, the real issue is to understand who is responsible for poverty and whether the proposed solutions are compatible with the current economic and social model, or whether it is not this very model that is creating increasing and widespread levels of poverty. In the latter case, poverty would represent a structural feature of our society that can only be alleviated.

Oscar Wilde, however, provided us with an interesting argument against the logic of charity. Indeed, in “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”, the writer argues that charity degrades and demoralizes, does not eliminate the cause of poverty, but rather temporarily masks it: "[People] find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this. The emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence; and, as I pointed out some time ago in an article on the function of criticism, it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought. Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease. [...]. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible. And the altruistic virtues have really prevented the carrying out of this aim. Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it[2].”

As the writer and political activist Barbara Ehrenreich has well pointed out, it is the poor who are the true benefactors of society: “When someone works for less pay than she can live on — when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently — then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life. The 'working poor,' as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else[3].”

This issue's dossier is dedicated to poverty, and rather than dwelling on the causes, factors and solutions, it tries to give us back the different faces of the people living in this dramatic condition. They are among us, we live with them daily, often without having the awareness of how close they are to us. It is from this awareness, however, that we must start to seek a possible solution. This also and especially applies to businesses, which are important players in our economic and social model. Indeed, businesses must not only have the social responsibility to look at others, but also the courage to reflect on themselves and understand whether, in addition to producing wealth, they do not also generate poverty.

[1]Belle ma povere” (1957) e “Poveri milionari” (1959)

[2] O. Wilde (1891), The Soul of Man Under Socialism

[3] [3] B. Ehrenreich (2001), Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America, Metropolitan Books

2023_04_Cover E&M 2_Senza titoli