Uproar over tax break for Italy's "big babies"

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ROME, Oct 6 (Reuters) Italy's economy minister has sparked uproar by offering ''big babies'' a tax break if they let go of their mother's apron strings and left home.

More than a third of Italian men over the age of 30 live at home with their parents, a phenomenon blamed on sky-high apartment rents and bleak job prospects as much as a liking for mamma's cooking.

Economy Minister Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa offered to come to the rescue with a 1,000 euro tax break for 20- and 30-something Italians who rent.

He said the move was aimed at ''bamboccioni'', which evokes images of clumsy, overgrown male babies.

''We must send those we call 'big babies' out of the house,'' the minister told a Senate hearing on the 2008 draft budget.

''With the budget we'll help young people who don't marry and still live with their parents get out of the house.'' The comment was immediately condemned by politicians from all shades of the political spectrum who said young Italians could hardly be blamed for a sputtering economy and high rents.

''This absurd gaffe shows how he's probably not clear how precarious is the situation afflicting an entire generation -- the first generation that has to deal with social conditions worse than those of its parents,'' said Francesco Caruso, a communist from Prime Minister Romano Prodi's coalition.

Rome mayor Walter Veltroni, who is likely to lead Italy's left into the next election, said on Friday he considered the comment an ''unhappy quip'' and problems facing the Italy's youth were the country's biggest challenge.

Opposition lawmaker Isabella Bertolini of Forza Italia party urged Prodi to scold his minister for the ''offensive epithet''.

Italy is holding a broader debate over its increasingly geriatric society where the best jobs are often occupied by those over 50, squeezing out the young and ambitious.

Many Italians do not graduate until their late 20s and end up in poorly paid internships or with short-term contracts.

A sharp rise in the cost of living since the introduction of the euro has not helped, and even a 1,000 euro tax break will not be enough to help young Italians stand on their own feet, said Guglielmo Epifani, who heads a major Italian union.

''Renting an apartment 30 years ago cost a quarter of the salary of a worker,'' writer Aldo Nove who has penned a book called ''My Name is Roberta, I'm 40 years old and earn 250 euros a month'', told Corriere della Sera newspaper.

''Today, it costs more than the salary of a young apprentice.

What else is there to say?'' REUTERS SZ BST0852

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