Italy’s North-South Divide Worsening

Southern cities are falling behind in terms of economic development and governance.

Rome, Italy at night, June 20, 2009
Rome, Italy at night, June 20, 2009 (lessandro Martino)

Italy’s north-south divide is getting worse. Southern cities are falling behind their northern counterparts in terms of economic development and governance.

A quality of life index published yearly by the Il Sole 24 Ore business newspaper shows large northern cities, such as Bologna, Milan and Rome, pulling ahead of Naples and Palermo in the south.

Demographic upheaval

Earlier this year, a study by Svimez, an association for the development of the south, also revealed that deindustrialization and unemployment have hit the region hard. Only four in ten working-age southerners are in work, the think tank said, while birth rates are the lowest in a century. Tens of thousands of southerns left the region to seek work elsewhere in the last year.

Svimez predicts further “demographic upheaval” and warns against a “tsunami of unforeseeable consequences” if the national government cannot arrest southern Italy’s decline.

It is doubtful if it can. The government in Rome has subsidized economic development in the south for decades, but to little avail. By propping up unprofitable industries, it might have inadvertently forestalled the development of more competitive businesses that could have employed local talent.


The south’s backwardness stretches back more than a century.

Before unification in 1861, Italy consisted of various republics and principalities that often owed their independence to their relations with other European powers. The south had been unified half a century earlier, in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and resisted national unification on northern terms. The imposition of the northern dialect and northern laws proved unpopular and the new central government in Rome made only halfhearted efforts to turn the two parts of the country into a single cultural and political unit.

Today, the provinces north of Rome are home to Italy’s industrial base whereas the south’s economy remains largely agricultural. Corruption and organized crime are rampant. A high share of economic activity is confined to the informal sector, although estimates vary.


Southern Italian provinces, including Sardinia and Sicily, are classified under the European Union’s convergence criteria, because gross domestic product per capita there is less than 70 percent of the European average and industrial development is lacking.

The region has 35 percent of Italy’s population but accounts for less than a quarter of its economy.

In the central and northern provinces, by contrast, incomes are on average almost twice as high and well above the European average.

Some northerners detest the permanent subsidizing of the south and support the Northern League, which advocates northern independence. There are movements for autonomy in the south as well, but they are far less popular.

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