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  Post-war Migration:  Book Excerpt

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During the 1950s and the 1960s, the standard of living in some areas of the Mezzogiorno improved dramatically. Large amounts of government money were spent, and many areas obtained roads and proper water supplies for the first time. Unemployment and underemployment were significantly reduced, though in many areas both remained at high levels. Yet, despite having made more progress than it ever had before, the Mezzogiorno failed to catch up to the north. The gap in income levels and industrial development widened instead of closing after World War II.

Tired of broken promises and shattered dreams, and growing increasingly impatient, many southern Italians began to view emigration overseas as the best solution to their economic woes. This idea was shared by the Italian government, which as early as 1946 regarded emigration as the quickest and easiest solution to the nation's serious unemployment problem. Post-war Italy's economic situation was such that it simply could not provide all its workers with full employment. Fearing that the excess population would make Italy a fertile recruiting ground for the Communist Party, the Christian Democratic government pressured Western European countries, as well as Canada and the United States, to increase their quotas for Italian immigrants.

In the late 1940s, countries like Belgium, France, Luxembourg and Switzerland experienced labour shortages and began to accept immigrant workers. Many Italians (mostly northern) took advantage of the situation and emigrated to those countries. In 1949, the Italian government presented the Economic Cooperation Administration (ECA) with a four-year plan for the emigration of 971,000 Italian workers, who would be sent to various cities in North America, Europe and Australia to meet specific labour shortages. Whether it was openly admitted or not, emigration was still thought to be the natural safety valve for Italy's problems. In particular, it was the easiest means of dealing with the never-ending problems of the Mezzogiorno.

As in the previous wave of migration, northern Italians emigrated first. Southern Italians, since they were poorer, could not afford the voyage. In addition, many lacked the skills to enter western European countries as guest workers. Between 1946 and 1961, southern Italians accounted for 46% of the total Italian emigration. After 1962, the southern emigration rose to 63% of the total and was largely directed overseas. Contrary to popular view, it was not the riffraff of the Mezzogiorno who made up most of the overseas migration. The passage was expensive; only those who had been able to accumulate savings by selling their plot of land or surplus crops could undertake the journey. Some of these migrants were the artisan children of the contadini. As skilled workers, they were preferred to unskilled labour by admitting countries.

Reprinted from With Heart and Soul: Calgary's Italian Community by Antonella Fanella, with permission from the University of Calgary Press and the author.

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