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Popolino - Sicily's Forgotten Underclass
by Maria Luisa Romano

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Public or 'council' housing in Sicily.What constitutes 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 the history.

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 Roger's people.

About the Author: Maria Luisa Romano has written for various Italian magazines, including this one.

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© 2009 Maria Luisa Romano