In the century following the Unification of Italy, nearly 30 million Italians emigrated. Although approximately 10 million returned to Italy, approximately 20 million settled permanently abroad.
Although the driving force was obviously poverty, there were several underlying causes for this. Unification caused a collapse of the feudal land system that had operated in the south of Italy since the Middle Ages. The redistributed land rarely ended up in the hands of the small farmers, who found it increasingly difficult to survive on the small, infertile plots that remained.
The improvement in general conditions in the south that followed Unification led to a population boom, forcing new generations to emigrate.
Lawlessness, rampant disease and punitive taxes made the idea of living in other countries more appealing and, as money filtered back from previous generations of emigrants, the exodus grew.
The arrival of the Fascist movement caused another wave of emigration, although this slowed for a while when Mussolini actually came to power. Finally, the desperate condition of post-war Italy led many more Italians to leave, this time there were many older relatives joining emigrants who had gone before.
From the late 1800s, the United States were one of the main destinations for Italian emigrants, who mainly settled in New York, New Jersey, New England, Pennsylvania, California, Florida and Illinois.
Most of the early arrivals were young men who had felt the need to leave the semi-feudal Italian South where there was very little in the way of opportunity. These Italian immigrants helped to provide the labour for factories and mines and helped to build roads, dams, tunnels, and other necessary infrastructure. With excellent work ethics and strong family values these young men gained an economic foothold, sent for their families and eventually became American citizens.
Nearly half of Italian immigrants eventually returned to Italy, but today’s Italian American community is largely descended from those who decided to remain in America. In total, about 5 million Italians immigrated and they are now the fourth largest ethnic group in the United States with over 17 million Americans claiming Italian ancestry.
Over 800,000 Australians claim Italian ancestry, with Italian being the second most widely spoken language, after English. Most of the immigrants arrived in the period following Unification.