Italy is a ‘dual’ country, with divisions between North and South, between areas strong in terms of the economy and business and weak areas with inefficient public spending. But also, in contrast to conventional geography, with a division between ‘smart’, cultured, efficient and fashionable urban centres and abandoned and neglected suburbs (Milan offers perfects examples of both: the splendour of the high tech skyscrapers of Porta Nuova and CityLife and the tough violence of the Adriano Quarter and Aler social housing. It is a country out of sync, if we look at these times of a politics which decides little and often badly, and the times of efficiency and internationalism in finance, in cutting edge services (Milan is experimenting, the first in Europe, with new 5G telecommunication networks) and the 4.0 digital industry. Italy, and the two Italys. This is something which has been noted by a great historian, Andrea Giardina, in the pages of a captivating book, “Storia mondiale dell’Italia” (The Global History of Italy), recently published by Laterza: “Today, it is inevitable that the North of Italy, where you find the most developed areas of the country, interacts with the world in a different way to the South, which is home to the largest poverty zone in the European Union.” An Italy which should be interpreted better, therefore, as we have been saying for some time. And be kept united, less uneven and better “synchronised”, in terms of both Europe and the Mediterranean.

GDP data shows a rise of 1.5% in 2017 (and which, once the accounts have been completed at the end of the year, may even rise by a few more decimal points), with a similar rise expected for 2018. The GDP has seen 12 consecutive quarters of growth, though it is only now that the numbers in question start higher than ‘zero point…’. And in any case, this growth, though well earned and in no way irrelevant, is lower than other European partners: we are still yet to recover to the levels of 2008, the start of the Great Economic Crisis, as Germany and France have done. We’re doing okay, without being excessively optimistic.But why is it, in spite of everything, many Italians are feeling increasingly fragile and poorer as time goes on?

The problem is that not all of the country is aware of and feels the effect of this positive economic trend. Here too, certain data must be taken into account. For example, the data taken from the Gini Index (which measures income distribution on a scale from zero to one: absolute balance or total imbalance): in 2015 the figure rose from 0.324 to 0.331, a sign of a growing inequality to the advantage of the richest people.An imbalance in both social terms and in terms of expectations, feeding unrest and distress (one of the reasons for the emergence of the Italy “of resentment” documented by the Censis Report which we discussed last week).

One confirmation of the current situation comes from Eurostat (the Statistics Office of the EU), which in a recent piece of research noted that Italy has the highest total number of people in poverty out of all the countries in the European Union: 10.5 million people living in conditions of “material and social deprivation”, with difficulties paying the rent on time, dealing with unexpected costs and having proper heating, with the biggest concentration of poverty found among young people and in Southern areas. This is 17.2% of the population, higher than the EU average and much worse than that of the most industrialised and developed nations (out of the “big countries”, only Spain is worse than us in percentage terms at 17.4%).”The beautiful country which excludes the weak” was the disgruntled comment of one perceptive economist, Mario Deaglio (“La Stampa”, 13 December).

Eurostat also calculates the differences in salaries between regions and provinces (an average of the annual gross salaries of directors, white collar workers and manual workers; reported in “La Stampa”, 18 December): it ranges from EUR 31,711 in Lombardy, to EUR 30,286 in Emilia and EUR 29,686 in Lazio, before falling to EUR 25,506 in Sicily and EUR 24,537 in Calabria, in last place. The discrepancy between individual provinces is even larger, ranging from EUR 34,330 in Milan to EUR 23,729 in Messina: a difference of more than EUR 11,000. Even with purchasing power taken into account, this is a large gap. A North of high incomes, entrepreneurial, dynamic, European, and a South of public employment, unstable jobs and low salaries. Heightened disparities.

If we move from the GDP (wealth) to the BES (the index of Equitable and Sustainable Wellbeing, calculated by Istat), the overall picture is worrying: “Getting richer, getting poorer”, writes “Avvenire”, the Catholic newspaper (16 December), explaining that “We may have moved out of the crisis but there is inequailty and a mistrust of politics.” The Italians “are less satisfied in terms of social relationships” and “there is also a fall in community spirit”, even if they also identify “comforting signs of a recovery in levels of volunteering”. The average family income has increased by 1.6% compared to 2015 and is equivalent to EUR 18,191 per capita, but this improved statistic should be read together with another piece of data: the 20% richest people in the population have increased their income by more than the average and by as much as 6.3 times that of the poorest 20% (in 2015 this figure stood at 5.8%).

Imbalanced wellbeing, then. And a two-speed Italy.

In order to be sustainable (socially, and in the long term), development needs equality. And to be founded on the strengthening of dynamic businesses which produce not only wealth and innovation but also improved social cohesion (corporate welfare, spread around the area where the companies are based, in the North, makes a big improvement to quality of life). And on a strategic stimulus in public spending in terms of investment in infrastructure, both tangible and intangible. But the current picture is far from comforting.

Companies which invest, carry out research, export and compete on international markets, meaning companies which are the engine of growth, are doing their job well (thanks also to the measures of the government to provide fiscal stimulation for innovation and the digital transformation of high quality industry). Public spending in the South is used up in widespread but low level salaries and in the wastage of corruption and personal relations, as well as a growing “rejection of modernity” which puts a brake on the best but fragile entrepreneurial spirits of the South. With growing social distress the result. The wellbeing everybody desires makes way for a general malaise. With negative effects for the country as a whole.

Changing this picture and launching “virtuous growth”, founded on “equality and sustainability” (Aldo Bonomi, “IlSole24Ore”), is an economic and civil challenge of huge significance. A political approach is indispensible, and one which is clear to the same feelings of the best companies which, from Milan and the South, hold the European future of Italy close to their heart. Which policy will manage to help them take off?