As Bologna Approaches: Italy’s Culture Voucher Evolves

In Feature Articles by Bruno Giancarli

After eight years, Italy’s culture voucher for 18-year-old citizens is becoming two programs, one based on need, one on academics.

In Torino, December 22, 2023. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Michele Ursi

Editor’s Note: With the Bologna Children’s Book Fair opening Monday (April 8)—and the Meloni government’s revamp of Italy’s 18App going into effect now—we’ve asked our contributor Bruno Giancarli to look at these changes and their implications for publishing. — Porter Anderson

By Bruno Giancarli

Two Cards: One Based on Need, One on  Academics
This year marks the debut in Italy of two new measures replacing the 18App. The two programs are the Carta Cultura Giovani (Youth Culture Card) and the Carta del Merito (Merit Card), as Publishing Perspectives reported in January 2023.

Having been active for eight years, Italy’s 18App was the first such “culture voucher” introduced in Europe, and has served to prompt similar cultural-development measures for teens and young adults in other markets including France, Spain, and, most recently, Germany.

The effects of these efforts in some cases have been dramatic in terms of book sales trends and reading in Italy: Between 2016 when the 18App was introduced and 2019, the percentage of Italians aged 18 to 21 who reported that they were reading rose from 46.8 percent to 54 percent.

Some observers believe that abandoning the measure this year cannot fail to have repercussions on the cultural industries in general and on the publishing industry in particular, publishing having been the main beneficiary of the 18App. Some 70 percent of the measure’s value was spent on books, and as recently as last year, the value each new 18-year-old received from the 18App was €500 (US$538).

It’s worth highlighting the changes introduced by the two new vouchers in comparison to the previous format.

The 18app was intended to be a universalist means of access to culture, aimed at any young person who had turned 18 during the previous year and was resident in Italy, or in possession of a residence permit.

  • The Carta Cultura has a different structure: The philosophy behind this measure is that the barrier preventing young people from accessing culture—and which this public intervention is intended to remove—is mainly economic. The card is in fact aimed at young people with a comparatively low “ISEE,” a metric of one’s economic situation that takes into account a family’s income, assets, and several household characteristics. The ISEE is not a tax return (which is personal) but refers precisely to the overall economic situation of a new 18-year-old’s family. A household ISEE of less than €35,000 (US$37,681) is makes an 18-year-old eligible for the Carta Cultura.
  • The Carta del Merito establishes a reward mechanism aimed at those who have obtained the highest marks in their last year of high school, 100 or 100 with honors. How many people are we talking about? If we take data from the ministry of education and merit, in 2023 there were about 50,000 Italian high-school graduates, 10 percent of the total, at such a level. This is an average, however, that doesn’t take into account some strong territorial and school system discrepancies in Italy.

Both vouchers have an amount of €500 and both can be awarded to a single student who demonstrates both the required economic and school-performance levels. But it’s not easy to make assumptions about how many 18-year-olds may qualify for both cards. And while it’s unlikely that there will be many recipients of both cards, a person entitled to both is to receive them in different years. The chart below indicates some of the changes in when the original 18App and the two new “card” programs come into play.

Image: Bruno Giancarli

  • For the Carta Cultura, it’s possible to register between January 31 and June 30 following the year in which one turns 18.
  • For the Carta del Merito, registration is in the year following the year of graduation, so this benefit tends to arrive a year later.

These six-month registration periods are also tighter timelines than were in place for the 18App. Last year, it was possible to register until October 31, 2023, with a spending window open until April 30 of this year, although the allocated budget was exhausted earlier.

Goods and Services Remain Consistent on the New Program

In a city park in Parma. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Giorez

The goods and services that can be purchased with the two new cards are the same as under original 18App. They include:

  • Tickets for theater and film performances and live shows
  • Books
  • Subscriptions to newspapers and periodicals, including in digital format
  • Recorded music
  • Audiovisual publishing products
  • Admission tickets to museums, exhibitions and cultural events, monuments, galleries, archaeological areas, natural parks
  • Music courses
  • Theater courses
  • Dance courses
  • Foreign language courses

Among items that remain excluded are video games and subscriptions for access to television channels or platforms offering audiovisual content. It does remain possible to make online purchases with these two cards. 

Until the ministry releases data on the new two-card program, initial assessments will  have to wait. But the most obvious effect of the measure is that, starting in 2024, the number of beneficiaries of the initiative will be significantly reduced. It’s difficult to estimate how many people will have access to the Carta Cultura because the ISEE (financial evaluation) is not compulsory. Also, because it’s a family indicator and not a personal one, it’s not easy to know how many children might be eligible under its requirements.

The legislature, by excluding those with an ISEE above €35,000, expects a decisive reduction in the number of users: While the 18app had a budget of €230 million (US$247.6 million), that budget now is €190 million (US$204.5 million) for the payouts of both cards combined.

The result, in any case, is that some of the new 18-year-olds in Italy will not have access to an important measure of support for their cultural consumption. Regardless of any other consideration, that’s a point that’s likely to have repercussions on the publishing market. Spending on books through the 18App has accounted for some €130 million (US$139.9 million) in the past years, somewhere around 7 percent or 8 percent of the Italian trade publishing market’s total.

And of course there may be considerable impact on the relationship many young people have with culture—at a crucial moment of entry into adult life.

In Rome. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Gennaro Leonardi

More from Publishing Perspectives on the Italian market and news from its publishers’ association is here, and more on Italy’s 18App program of cultural subsidy for young adults is here.  More on Guest of Honor at Frankfurter Buchmesse in 2024 is here, and more on this year’s Bologna Children’s Book Fair, Bologna Book Plus, and Bologna Licensing Trade Fair/Kids is here.

More of our coverage relative to the 2024 Bologna Children’s Book Fair:

About the Author

Bruno Giancarli

Bruno Giancarli has worked since 2021 with the research department of the Association of Italian Publishers (Associazione Italiana Editori, AIE), covering industry statistics and trends in the Italian publishing market. With a PhD in philosophy, Giancarli writes for the AIE's Giornale della libreria in analysis of international markets. He's also a member of the data and statistics committee of the International Publishers Association.