September 15, 2016 / 4:06 PM / in a year

Italy to launch 500-euro arts bonus for 18-year-olds next month

ROME (Reuters) - Emerging from an underfunded school system into a bleak jobs market, Italians turning 18 this year at least have one birthday treat to look forward to -- 500 euros ($562.10) from the state to spend on cultural items such as books, concerts and movies.

Revellers climb a steep slope to leave the Circus Maximus after watching a concert by British band Genesis in downtown Rome July 14, 2007. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi

The 290-million-euro 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 Renzi has offered instead of a coherent policy to make Italy’s chronically weak economy more competitive.

Renzi, who originally promised the bonus after Islamist attacks in Paris last November, said on Thursday the bonus would be available from October.

Beatrice Hirsch, from the northern city of Turin, was looking forward to seeing how the money can be spent. “We hardly ever go on school trips,” she said. “I will try to go to the cinema or the theater, or subscribe to magazines and newspapers.”

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

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

“Young people don’t sell themselves for a handout,” Beppe Grillo, founder of the anti-establishment 5-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.

Alberto Bagnai, economic policy professor at the University of Chieti-Pescara, said 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,” Bagnai said.

Tax cuts of about 80 euros a month for low earners have not sent them shopping as 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 favor 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.

Editing by Catherine Evans

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