ROME (Reuters) - The number of Italians living in absolute poverty held steady in 2018 after three straight years of growth, though the problem remains at a record high, data showed on Tuesday.
About 5 million people or 8.4% of the population live in absolute poverty, defined as those unable to buy goods and services "essential to avoid grave forms of social exclusion", according to data from national statistics bureau ISTAT.
In terms of families, the number was 1.8 million, the highest since ISTAT records began in 2005.
Fighting poverty is a key goal of the year-old populist government, which has embarked on a big expansion of state welfare, including a "citizens' income" for the poor, and plans tax cuts to reinvigorate the chronically stagnant economy.
Luigi Di Maio, who heads the coalition 5-Star Movement and championed the welfare reform, said in September that the government would "abolish poverty" in the euro zone's third largest economy.
The economy grew 0.9% percent in 2018 and ISTAT expects it to eke out 0.3% growth this year.
In Italy's underdeveloped south, the bedrock of support for 5-Star, more than 11% of people were living in absolute poverty last year, ISTAT said.
That compared with 6.6% in central regions including the capital, Rome, and around 7% in the north including the financial capital, Milan.
Italians living in "relative poverty" -- those whose disposable income is less than around half the national average -- fell to around 15% of the population from 15.6% in 2017.
(Reporting by Angelo Amante; Editing by Mark Bendeich and Crispian Balmer)