Poor, Poorer, Poorest; Once upon a Time, Italy's Old Mezzogiorno Was Europe's Most Impoverished Region. It Still Is-Only Much More So

Newsweek International, September 26, 2005 | Go to article overview

Poor, Poorer, Poorest; Once upon a Time, Italy's Old Mezzogiorno Was Europe's Most Impoverished Region. It Still Is-Only Much More So


Byline: Barbie Nadeau

The ruins of Matera in Italy's southern region of Basilicata are a grim reminder of how desperate life has been for the region's poor. Generations of families once lived here in squalid, windowless caves cut out of the steep ravines, often sleeping alongside their pigs, chickens and goats. Malaria was rampant and few babies survived to see their first birthday. Finally, in 1960, a public outcry across Europe prompted the Italian government to evacuate the entire impoverished population of 15,000 up the hill to government housing. Now the area is a UNESCO World Heritage site and many of the abandoned caves are being transformed into tony wine bars and four-star hotels for curious tourists. Mel Gibson even filmed a segment of "The Passion" here--fittingly, the gruesome Crucifixion scene.

Matera and other picturesque southern Italian villages may be enjoying a relative renaissance, thanks to tourism. And Italy itself has become Europe's fourth largest economy, with dynamic growth over the past decades despite recent years of sporadic recession. Yet life in the old Mezzogiorno remains as tough as it's always been--if not worse. Instead of catching up with the rest of Italy, the region seems to be falling farther and farther behind.

According to two studies released last month, southern Italy, if it were independent, would be the poorest of the EU's 25 members in terms of per capita national income. Many residents cannot afford adequate housing and such basic utilities as hot water and central heating. Infant mortality in the first 28 days of life is 5.7 per 1,000 live births--four times higher than in the northern provinces and double the European median. The dropout rate for primary-school students--through grade eight--is 24 percent, 2.5 times higher than the rest of Europe. Says Maurizio Bonati of the Mother and Child Health Laboratory at Mario Negri Institute in Milan, coauthor of one of the studies: "We're talking about people who cannot buy simple groceries, who cannot buy milk for their children, who cannot find nourishment when they are pregnant." The second study, by Giorgio Tamburlini of the Institute for Child Health Burlo Garofaloin Trieste, found that 17 percent of children and adolescents in southern Italy suffer from mental-health problems including depression, suicide and eating disorders like anorexia--all disproportionate side effects of Italy's enduring north-south income divide.

What's remarkable is how little impact 40 years of government aid and investment have had. For decades, the richer Italian provinces in the north have complained--often to the point of demanding separation--that taxes paid to the government in Rome are siphoned by the poor south. To be sure, there are some successes: government investment in agriculture has made Puglia the largest provider of pasta for Europe. Calabria has become one of Europe's major suppliers of citrus fruit. In Campania, investment in tourism has transformed the Amalfi coast into a top tourism destination, while Naples is slowly being remade into a clean and safe city. Yet the overall picture remains grim: 7.3 million residents in southern Italy still make less than 521 euro a month, and half of those live on less than 435 euro a month, according to ISTAT, Italy's national statistics institute. …

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