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Italians sign up for populists' 'citizen's income'

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Rome (AFP)

Italians queued Wednesday to sign up for the "citizen's income", a 780-euro (880-dollar) monthly payment that was a key promise of the populist government aimed at ending poverty for millions.

"If it works, then it's a good idea... we hope in any case," said pensioner Paolo Scaglione, who had come to drop off the application for his daughter, a single mother.

"There are many who will try to get it, we must see what will happen after, if it will solve something," he said, one of thousands applying at Italian post offices and tax assistance centres (CAF).

The "citizen's income" was a flagship measure of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) when it won elections last year, forming a government in June along with the anti-immigrant Lega.

It is aimed at the more than five million Italians and long-term foreign residents living below the poverty line, hoping to get them jobs and to stimulate badly needed economic growth.

"We heard on the news that the CAF would first see people whose surnames begin with an A or B, to avoid chaos," said Mariela Pinzon, an Italian resident of Colombian origin.

"My name starts with a P so I might have to come back," said Pinzon, one of the first in when the doors opened on Wednesday morning.

"If it works as we were promised it would, then really yes, it's an excellent system," said Pinzon, the unemployed mother of a teenaged girl.

Despite fears that officials would be overwhelmed by hordes of people seeking the payments, Italian television said queues were reasonable throughout the country.

"We were expecting more people, we were expecting a little more, but one has to prepare documents to make this request, and not all of them have yet," said CAF employee Elisabeth Micolano.

- 18 months -

The first payments will be made around the end of April or early May, a few weeks before European parliamentary elections, and the programme will cost a whopping 6.6 billion euros.

Crucially, applicants cannot turn down more than two job offers, the second of which could be 250 kilometres (155 miles) from home. The third offer could be anywhere in the country.

"If they give you a job then people obviously have to accept the work offered, it shouldn't encourage people to do nothing," said pensioner Scaglione.

The payments can be made for up to 18 months and are renewable after a month.

Successful applicants must have been in Italy for at least two years for Italians and 10 years for foreigners.

"Some foreigners have little income, for example I have four children, and a very low income, and I pay rent," said Ruwena, an Italian resident of Filipino origin who moved here in 1992.

"So I think there will be a lot of foreigners who will ask, and not only foreigners, Italians too."

The measure will help around 1.3 million Italian families, according to the Italian statistics institute Istat, including many in the more impoverished south of the country.

On average, poor families will end up receiving around 5,000 euros extra a year.

The money will be paid into bank accounts which can be accessed using a special debit card, initially only to buy food in certain shops.

In future, the cards can be used to pay for clothes or other necessities. Any money left at the end of the month goes back to the state.

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