Saturday, September 17, 2011

Rural realities echoed in story of small-town Sicily

The New York Times reported on Thursday from Comitini, Italy, in southern Sicily, under the headline, "Austere Italy? Check the Traffic." The gist of the story is that part of Italy's budget woes are due to arguably excessive public spending, and a recently passed "austerity" budget won't necessarily end that because of an entrenched political patronage system. Comitini, with a population just under 1000 but with a full-time traffic officer and eight part-time "auxiliaries," is held out as an example of the problem. Here's an excerpt:

“Jobs like these have kept this city alive,” said Caterina Valenti, 41, an auxiliary in a neat blue uniform as she sat recently with two colleagues, all on duty, drinking coffee in the town’s bar on a hot afternoon. “You see, here we are at the bar, we support the economy this way.”

But what may be saving Comitini’s economy is precisely what is strangling Italy’s and other ailing economies throughout Europe.
The story notes that many of those on the public sector payroll have been rewarded with jobs in exchange for supporting local politicians, which is seen as a particular problem in the southern part of the country. But Comitini's mayor remains unapologetic, stating:

I know that 60 people in a town of 1,000 is a good number, it’s a lot. ... But if I didn’t let them work, these people would have to go work in America. That’s 60 people with 60 families looking for work elsewhere. ...Besides, the city doesn’t pay them. The state and the region do.
Of course, public-sector jobs are also critical in many rural economies in the United States, as illustrated by this USDA-ERS map, which shows in blue the nonmetro counties in which an annual average of at least 15% of total county earnings are "derived from federal and state government." USDA-ERS characterizes these as "Federal/State Government Dependent Counties 1998-2000." I'd be interested in seeing how recent public spending cuts in the U.S. have altered this map. You can read related commentary here and here.

But this Italian also echoed another rural theme: lack of anonymity. It ends with this quote from the same traffic officer, explaining why she and her colleagues, still in the bar drinking coffee, don't ticket the cars outside, parked beneath a “no parking” sign.

“We try to avoid giving fines,” she said. “It’s a small town, we all know one another.”

No comments: