Social co-ops arose in Italy in the late seventies following the deinstitutionalization of psychiatric patients and the dissatisfaction of caregivers and families with the quality of care provided by the state. In theory, Italian public bodies were expected to provide key social services. Indeed, charitable and private social care organisations were taken over and integrated into public bodies under legislation dating back to 1890. Local authorities were at the core of education, health and social services. However, social services for the aged, the disabled and the addicted were always lowest in priority; extended families were expected to be the core care providers. The result was a growing gap in services to many in need, exacerbated by falling tax revenues and a high level of tax avoidance - estimated in the 1970s to be 14% to 20% of GDP.
Fed up with the poor quality of public care, in the late 70s caregivers teamed up with families to create social care programs that were owned and operated by frontline workers and the people they served. Nearly half of the early social co-ops arose out of the work of voluntary organizations and advocacy groups, often associated with the Catholic Church. Throughout the 80’s these groups struggled to receive recognition. Italian courts refused to recognize them as co-operatives because they violated the traditional mutual principle that co-ops provide a service to a specified group of members - not to the community as a whole. They spread informally, seeding new services in new locations as new needs were identified and new groups formed to respond to them. These groups then formed consortia to network their services and to apply political pressure at both regional and national levels to achieve legislation that would formally recognize this form of “open-cooperation” in which workers, service users, and volunteers might jointly serve the whole of a community - not just a predetermined group of members.
It took ten years of parliamentary debate and persistent pressure from the co-operative movement to finally pass the Act of 1991 that recognized social co-ops as a specific form of co-operative that served the interest of a community – not only a designated group. Passage of the Act opened the road to the rapid spread of social co-ops across Italy. The tradition of mutual aid within families and in the broader community, coupled with the growing gap between need and the provision of services, created a space for institutional innovation, which was formally recognized and supported by passage of the Act of 1991. It was this combination of factors that fueled the explosion of social co-operatives.
The resources, leadership, and collective experience of Italy’s co-operative movement—among the largest and most sophisticated in Europe— aided these efforts. Today, there are more than 14,000 social co-ops employing 380,000 people across Italy. In 2015, social co-ops generated over 8.1 billion euros in economic value. While comprising only 20 per- cent of the non-profit sector, social co-ops generate more than 40 percent of its economic turnover. In the city of Bologna, 85 percent of health and social care programs are delivered by social co-operatives, providing a vast array of services under contract to municipal and public authorities. Social co-ops provide treatment for substance users, retrain and employ ex-prisoners, provide travel and recreation services to families of disabled people, create new community services for children and families, and provide long-term care to the elderly.
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