Socioeconomic Inequalities and the Divide between the North and South of Italy

Throughout history and into this day and age, the North and South of Italy are divided. “Dualism” is a concept which has constantly dominated the country’s social and economic history. Anthropologists have identified apparent cultural, psychological, and anthropological differences between the two, which has led the two regions to be called “two Italies” as their differences shine through more than their similarities (Daniele, 2015). Ever since the induction of the South of Italy, inequalities have been present in almost every aspect of life. From the start, many individuals saw the South of Italy as underdeveloped. Many politicians, citizens, and scholars all contribute to these ideas and points of view. Costantino Nigra, a secretary to the lieutenant-general of the Neapolitan provinces, stated,

“In the north, patriotism predominates, in the South self-interest; their sacrifice is spontaneous, here one works out of egoism; In the north, there is reflection, here in the south dancing; their harmony exists, at least in purpose, here discord in everything; in upper Italy, one is familiar with political life, in lower Italy it is entirely unknown; up their civic education exists, down here public corruption.”

Costantino Nigra

This statement exemplifies the explicit depiction of the South as the polar opposite of its Northern latter. The language used degrades the South in being underdeveloped politically and personally. Furthermore, General Paolo Solaroli stated about Naples,

“Its population is the ugliest I have seen in Europe after Oporto’s but surpasses them in weakness and vice.”

General Paolo Solaroli

He speaks so poorly about the South with such little substance, criticizing them for their looks, strength, and vice. While these inequalities have shifted and changed over time, to this day, the North-South divide continues to be the most severe issue when it comes to Italy’s social and economic history and present day. These inequalities stem from long-term institutional and cultural obstacles. The socioeconomic disparities present within Italy can be explored through three different areas: the labor market, education, and household economic conditions.  

First, the labor market is particularly not equal when comparing the North to the South of Italy. Looking into Noi Italia, many statistics can be found confirming this notion. They stated that as of 2019, in the 20-64 age group, 7/10 people in the North of Italy were employed compared to the South of Italy, where only 5/10 people were employed. This statistic exemplifies an apparent disparity between the two regions. Furthermore, long-term unemployment is significantly higher in the southern regions. Long-term unemployment can be defined as an individual lacking a job for upwards of twelve months. The most surprising of all is the statistics surrounding youth unemployment. Youth are defined as ages 15-24 years old, and as shown in the graph below, the southern regions have much higher percentages of unemployment than the North. This age group is the nation’s future, and with the discrepancies, the inequalities will continue to persist in employment.

“Youth Unemployment Rate”

These inequalities present in the labor market stem from the past. Many scholars study them as it is impertinent and daunting. In an article written by Daniele Checchi and Vito Peragine, the opportunity inequality in Italy is reviewed and scrutinized. They used their proposed theoretical approach to analyze the inequality in each region, highlighting the higher inequality in the southern regions. They brought forth the fact that inequality of opportunities is even higher for women in the South (Checchi & Peragine, 2008). Additionally, they make comments on the reasoning for this. They state that talented individuals in the South are at a more significant disadvantage than the North because of the lower social origins (Checchi & Peragine, 2008). Family ties are substantial in Italy, and in the South, these family networks to find a job are not as strong (Checchi & Peragine, 2008). Furthermore, there is less availability of good jobs in the South because it is less technologically advance and developed (Checchi & Peragine, 2008). Then, according to Checchi and Peragine, these talented individuals will move to the North of Italy, causing a “brain drain” from the South (Checchi & Peragine, 2008). This migration is exemplary towards the discrepancy of the unemployment rate and only reinforces the inequalities in the South.

The following socioeconomic inequality to be highlighted is the inequality of education. Education is the basis of success in career and life. Looking at Noi Italia again, they provide statistics exemplifying the inequality. First and foremost, in 2019, the percentage of poorly educated adults in the South of Italy was 46.4% compared to the Center-North average of 33.9%. These numbers speak for themselves as highlight the blatant difference in education level. Furthermore, the highest percentage of individuals who dropout of school was recorded in Sicilia, reaching 22.4%. On the lower side are regions such as Veneto and Marche, located in the North. These statistics show almost a fourth of people in Sicilia drop out of school. Finally, when it comes to higher education, the North takes the cake. In 2017, the participation of the schooling system during the ages of 20-24 (higher education) reached up to 51% in northern regions while it only reached roughly 30% at the highest in the South. Without this higher education, individuals in Italy cannot get good-paying jobs or be over-successful in any way.

“Participation in the education and training system of 20-44 year olds”

This educational inequality stems from a history of the underdeveloped mind of the South. In an article written by Luisa Gagliardi and Marco Percoco, human capital in Italy during the late 19th century is explored, with the conclusion in its effects. They focus on the time of the induction of the South of Italy and search for findings having to do with regional disparities. They found that in 1891 the northern regions were characterized by higher levels of education and the literacy rate was significantly lower in the South of Italy (Gagliardi & Percoco, 2011). Significantly lower as in, the northern regions literacy rate was almost twice that in southern Italy (Gagliardi & Percoco, 2011). Furthermore, they concluded that these discrepancies in education lead to inequalities in productivity and industrial specialization, slowing the production and improvement of the South (Gagliardi & Percoco, 2011).

The final socioeconomic inequality in need of exploration is household economic conditions. Once more, Noi Italia provides all needed statistics surrounding a holistic view of the conditions. An important statistic to note is the “poor houses in relative terms.” This means, in relation to the average income, what percentage of families are considered “poor.” This was significantly higher in the southern regions compared to the North. Campania reported having 541.2 families considered “poor” in 2018, and areas in the center-north, such as Tuscany, reported only 95.8 families. This is important to note as it displays the apparent poverty in the South of Italy. Furthermore, the net family income in the North of Italy is significantly higher than the South of Italy as of 2017. On the lower side, the region of Sicily had an average income of 19,979 euros, and on the higher side, Bolzano had an average income of 31,882 euros. This exhibits the inequality between the North and the South on the ground of average income.

“Incidence of relative poverty”

Many scholars have looked into the cause for this income disparity, two of them being Buch and Monti. They wrote a paper exploring and questioning whether trade affects income differentials. The North naturally trades more than their less-developed sister of the South. Their research correlating data found a positive correlation between trade openness and GDP per capita (Buch & Monti, 2009). This emphasizes the economic inequalities that the south experiences, as the region is less open to trade, therefore their GDP is affected.

In conclusion, these socioeconomic inequalities have led to disparities of all shapes and forms, deeming the South less than, still. The South of Italy has a struggling labor market with minimal higher-level job options, an environment that doesn’t encourage higher education and poverty, and a lower average income. This is a very problematic issue because the citizens of the South do not have similar rights to the rest of Italy. When there is a lack of equal opportunity and underdevelopment no one is trying to help, it inevitably results in southerner’s inequality. Southerners of Italy continue to run into hurdles, put there by history and long-term inequalities that have been around since the late 19th century. They should be equal, but they continue to be less.

Should the people of the South even identify as Italians? This is an incredibly stark question, but it is difficult for individuals to contain a nationalistic identity when they don’t even receive the same opportunity or treatment as the rest of the country. National identity comes with equal rights for all, and until Italy does something about the growing inequalities, the dualism of Northern and Southern Italy will not fade. The South has different cultures, different opportunities, and different dialects. How could they possibly have the same nationalistic identity as an Italian from the North? They do not live similar lives. They do not live equal lives. Their identities are not the same.

Works Cited

Buch, C. M., & Monti, P. (2010). Openness and income disparities: does trade explain the “Mezzogiorno effect”?. Review of World Economics145(4), 667-688.

Checchi, D., & Peragine, V. (2010). Inequality of opportunity in Italy. The Journal of Economic Inequality8(4),429-450.

Daniele, V. (2015). Two Italies? Genes, intelligence and the Italian north–south economic divide. Intelligence49, 44-56.

Gagliardi, L., & Percoco, M. (2011). Regional disparities in Italy over the long run: the role of human capital and trade policy. Région et Développement33, 81-105.

Noi Italia 2020. (n.d.).

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