Old Calabria: The Benefits of Emigration
While there’s a lot of recent discussion about the impact of immigration, Americans often overlook the effects of emigration.
Norman Douglas traveled extensively in southern Italy during the early 1900s and wrote a book entitled Old Calabria. At one point he discussed how emigration was transforming Italy, which at the time was quite poor:
What is shattering family life is the speculative spirit born of emigration. A continual coming and going; two-thirds of the adolescent and adult male population are at this moment in Argentina or the United States—some as far afield as New Zealand. Men who formerly reckoned in sous now talk of thousands of francs; parental authority over boys is relaxed, and the girls, ever quick to grasp the advantages of money, lose all discipline and steadiness. . . .
These emigrants generally stay away three or four years at a stretch, and then return, spend their money, and go out again to make more. Others remain for longer periods, coming back with huge incomes—twenty to a hundred francs a day. . . .
It is nothing short of a social revolution, depopulating the country of its most laborious elements. 788,000 emigrants left in one year alone (1906); in the province of Basilicata the exodus exceeds the birthrate. I do not know the percentage of those who depart never to return, but it must be considerable; the land is full of chronic grass-widows.
Things will doubtless right themselves in due course; it stands to reason that in this acute transitional stage the demoralizing effects of the new system should be more apparent than its inevitable benefits. Already these are not unseen; houses are springing up round villages, and the emigrants return home with a disrespect for many of their country’s institutions which, under the circumstances, is neither deplorable nor unjustifiable. A large family of boy-children, once a dire calamity, is now the soundest of investments. Soon after their arrival in America they begin sending home rations of money to their parents; the old farm prospers once more, the daughters receive decent dowries. I know farmers who receive over three pounds a month from their sons in America—all under military age. . . .
Previous to this wholesale emigration, things had come to such a pass that the landed proprietor could procure a labourer at a franc a day, out of which he had to feed and clothe himself; it was little short of slavery. The roles are now reversed, and while landlords are impoverished, the rich emigrant buys up the farms or makes his own terms for work to be done, wages being trebled. A new type of peasant is being evolved, independent of family, fatherland or traditions—with a sure haven of refuge across the water when life at home becomes intolerable.
When people emigrate to a more successful place, there is a flow of information back to the home country. People learn that things don’t have to be this way, and there is pressure for change. Like trade, migration is not a zero sum game; it tends to improve cultures in both the sending and the receiving country.