Pandemic exposes the vulnerability of Italy's 'new poor'

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People queue for food at the 'Pane Quotidiano' (Daily Bread) Onlus, in Milan, northern Italy, Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020. Nowhere in Italy is poverty more evident than in Lombardy, the northern region that has been the pandemic epicenter in both surges. The Coldiretti agriculture lobby estimates that the virus has created 300,000 so-called "new poor,'' based on surveys of the dozens of charity associations operating in the region. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

MILAN – The coronavirus pandemic did not produce Elena Simone's first budgetary rough patch. The 49-year-old single mother found herself out of the job market when the 2008 global financial crisis hit Italy and never fully got back in, but she created a patchwork of small jobs that provided for herself and the youngest of her three children.

That all changed with Italy's first COVID-19 lockdown in the spring.

With schools closed, so went Simone's cafeteria job. Her housecleaning gigs dried up, too. While others returned to work when the lockdown ended, Simone stayed frozen out.

“There was a period when I was only eating carrots,’’ she recalled from her kitchen decorated with colorful plush characters shaped like vegetables.

For the first time in her life, Simone needed help putting food on the table. At a friend's urging, she enrolled for access to the food stores operated by Roman Catholic charity Caritas. Her eligibility covers her through January, and she hopes to be off the charity rolls by then “to make room for people who need it even more.”

The charity serving more than 5 million people in the Milan archdiocese, Caritas Ambrosiana, says the pandemic is revealing for the first time the depths of economic insecurity in Italy's northern Lombardy region, which generates 20% of the country's gross domestic product.

Simone, who has two adult children and a 10-year-old son at home, is typical of Italy's new poor. These are people who managed to get by after the 2008 financial crisis, staying off the radar of Italy's welfare system by relying on informal, gray-market jobs and the help of friends and family.

But between Italy’s near-total spring lockdown, the introduction of a partial lockdown when the virus surged again in the fall and the continued toll the pandemic is taking on Italy's economy, the slim threads that allowed people to weave together employment have snapped.