(By Sandra Cordon) Rome, July 17 - The joblessness that has struck alongside Italy's deepest recession in 20 years has driven more Italian children and their families into poverty, the national statistics agency reported Wednesday. Almost 9.6 million people, or 15.8% of the population, were living in some form of poverty in 2012, Istat reported. And just over half of these – 4.8 million people - were struggling with absolute poverty, which means they cannot afford to buy essential goods and services for a dignified life. Istat said the proportion of people living in absolute poverty increased sharply from 5.7% in 2011 to 8% in 2012, the highest level since 2005. The proportion of people living in absolute or relative poverty climbed to 15.8% in 2012 from 13.6% in 2011. Conditions are especially bad in the southern half of the country, where almost 1.6 million children – about 10.3% - were living in poverty last year, a dramatic increase from 7% or about 703,000 children in 2011. Istat noted that nearly half of the absolute poorest Italians live in the south, about 2.347 million people. That's a dramatic rise from the 1.828 million southern poor reported just one year earlier. In fact, the percentage of Italian families with three or more children who are living in poverty jumped to 16.2% last year from 10.4% in 2011, the statistics agency said. And in families with three small children, poverty soared to 17.1% last year from 10.9% one year earlier, Istat reported. The agency noted that the number of single-parent families in absolute poverty jumped to 9.1% from 5.8% the previous year. Such conditions are "extremely alarming," said UNICEF Italy President Giacomo Guerrera. "The rate of poverty among children and adolescents is among the most important indicators of health and wellbeing of a society," Guerra said. It's also a signal that rapid action is needed to keep matters from worsening in future, as poverty can breed more poverty, he added. In uncertain economic conditions, investing in the development and protection of children and adolescents "is not only ethically right, but also economically advantageous," the UNICEF Italy head said. Child poverty is not inevitable, but susceptible to government policies, he added. "Some countries are doing much better than others to protect the most vulnerable. Since the situation in Italy is not improving, action is needed," Guerrera said. "It's necessary that the government assesses the impact and effects that policies already in place or being considered have on children, adolescents and their families". Employment plays an visible factor as the incidence of relative poverty reached 49.7% of all poor last year in homes headed by a person seeking work. The dramatic rise in poverty in Italy has driven a 33% jump in business at charities distributing meals and food to the poor, Italy's leading farm group said Wednesday. The economic crisis has meant a 33% increase between 2010 and 2012 for charitable assistance, the Italian Confederation of Farmers (CIA) said in reaction to the Istat report. Almost 3.7 million Italians sought food aid last year, said the CIA.