Italy giving all 18-year-olds a €500 arts bonus

Money to be handed out from next month; critics call it a political stunt by the PM

ROME • Emerging from an underfunded school system into a bleak job market, Italians turning 18 this year at least have one birthday treat to look forward to - €500 (S$770) from the state to spend on cultural items such as books, concerts and movies.

The €290 million scheme is the brainchild of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who says he wants the new adults to feel part of the world's biggest cultural patrimony.

Critics, however, see it as a political stunt like other bonuses and handouts which they say Mr Renzi has offered, instead of a coherent policy to make Italy's chronically weak economy more competitive.

Mr Renzi, who originally promised the bonus after extremist attacks in Paris last November, said on Thursday that the bonus would be available from next month.

Ms Beatrice Hirsch, from the northern city of Turin, is looking forward to ways to spend the money. "We hardly ever go on school trips," she said. "I will try to go to the cinema or the theatre, or subscribe to magazines and newspapers."

From Thursday, cultural institutions could begin to sign up, and the roughly 570,000 Italians and non-native residents born in 1998 who have already blown out 18 candles can request an online ID .

INVESTING IN YOUTH

It is a first step, like a chink of light in investment for young people. I think it's right to give the money to 18-year-olds because turning 18 is an important moment.

ROME NATIVE VALENTINA MARAZZA, who turns 18 this month.

When Mr Renzi announced the scheme, it was widely criticised as a means to woo new young voters.

"Young people don't sell themselves for a handout," Mr Beppe Grillo, founder of the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement, wrote on his blog, slamming the "decrepit" state of schools in Italy.

According to Eurostat, Italy spent proportionately less on education than any other European Union country in 2014.

Economic policy professor Alberto Bagnai from the University of Chieti-Pescara said Mr Renzi could find better uses for the money, especially after an earthquake that killed almost 300 people last month in central Italy.

"Unfortunately, there are bigger problems right now. Just think of reconstruction after the earthquake or a whole series of infrastructure works that are not being done," he said.

Tax cuts of about €80 a month for low earners have not sent them shopping as Mr Renzi hoped, and weak domestic demand helped stall output growth in the second quarter.

Rome native Valentina Marazza, who turns 18 this month, said she was pleased money was being dedicated to the young, even though she would prefer not to be told how to spend it and thought it might have been better to favour lower earners.

"It is a first step, like a chink of light in investment for young people," she said. "I think it's right to give the money to 18-year-olds because turning 18 is an important moment."

There is no suggestion the scheme will be repeated for those who turn 18 next year.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 17, 2016, with the headline 'Italy giving all 18-year-olds a €500 arts bonus'. Print Edition | Subscribe