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Italian Traditions Provide Buffers To The Crisis

"It has been this high rate of financial wealth and the capacity of Italian families to save compared with other European countries that has protected Italy from the crisis," said Giovanni Sabatini, general director of the Italian Banking Association.

As the crisis wears on, Sabatini says, "family debts are growing, and the capital is being eroded ... But the starting point was very elevated, which still guarantees the solidity of the system."

There is a flip side: While family welfare provides a cushion, it does not allow efficient distribution of resources and leaves the younger generation at the mercy of those that came before. It's not for nothing that Italy is known as a gerontocracy, where the strings are pulled by the elderly â¿¿ from the highest levels of government to big business to the extended family.

"If there were a way to institutionalize the passage of this wealth, things would be more natural compared to the current condition, which is tied to generosity," said Marcello Calabro, who ran the study for Pioneer.

Social buffers have also encouraged many people, like Tartarini, to ignore signs of the crisis and carry on in the hope they can outlast it. And "la bella figura" can create an illusion that all is well when in fact things are falling apart.

"It is a crisis of identity," said the Rev. Giovanni Sandona, coordinator for the Catholic charity Caritas in northeastern Italy. "It is not just an economic crisis."

When Tartarini's world crumbled, he found he could rely on friends and Catholic charity.

These days, Tartarini takes whatever handyman jobs found by the nuns at his Vicenza parish. And friends take him on trips to the grocery store, where they pay for his, too.

Tartarini, in well-worn work clothes and heavy black shoes, spent a recent morning preparing to move with his wife and 25-year-old son from a rented accommodation he could no longer afford into a free vacated apartment belonging to the parish church of Nove, a ceramic-making town north of Vicenza. Caritas has reached out to parishes with empty residential properties to house people who have lost their lodging in the crisis.

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