Istat, the state statistics institute, describes Italy as a country of great inequality in its latest annual report. More than almost any other country in Europe, there is a growing margin between people who are discreetly prosperous and those who are struggling to remain above the poverty level. Presenting the report, president of Istat Luigi Biggeri spoke of a vulnerable and fragile country with an embarrassing difference between the north and the south that is not improving.

The average Italian family has a monthly income of 2079. However, in reality half of these people have an income of just 1670, with little chance of improving their financial or social status. In the past five years the number of people living below the poverty line has not improved. (In 2004 the poverty line was defined as two people living on less than 918 per month). More than 7.6 million people (11.7 per cent of the population) are struggling to survive, and more than 4.2 million people earn less than 780 per month. In fact, 20 per cent of Italians hold 40 per cent of the wealth of the country.

The problem of poverty is more pronounced in the south of Italy, where 39 per cent of those with the lowest income level live. Many of these low-income families are unemployed or old age pensioners. Some 13.5 per cent of families living in southern Italy claim that they are unable to afford a proper meal more often than once every three days, and 21.9 per cent cannot heat their homes sufficiently.

Only 36.1 per cent of Italians work a five day week, eight hours a day, Monday to Friday. The rest work flexible hours, weekends, nights and part time, on average putting in 38.1 hours a week one hour more than their European counterparts. However, this figure is influenced by the small numbers of Italians who work part time. The full report can be seen on www.istat.it