Back on Their Feet: The Italian Welfare League and the Ragazzi

Authored by Kyle Randall

A boy with worn features and wrinkles under his eyes that do not belong on a teenager is posed smoking before the photographer.
A young Ragazzi smoking to try to curb his hunger in the aftermath of World War II


            Like most of the world, Italy suffered greatly in the first half of the 20th century, as a result of the two World Wars and the Great Depression devastating most developed nations. World War I caused distrust amongst many first world nations, and brought about a massive decrease in trade across the globe. “These policies took several forms such as import tariffs, currency control and quota restrictions” (Perri and Quadrini 2000, 4). The collapse of the economy and subsequent worldwide political strife made way for conflicts that would spark the second World War, sowing even greater turmoil and tragedy into an already struggling nation. After World War II came to a close, Italy’s infrastructure suffered massive damage, and its economy was in shambles.  Thousands of children were left homeless and orphaned.  While Italy would eventually recover, the initial years were difficult. “In the aftermath of World War II, Italy and France like the other European belligerents experienced persistent, rapid, disruptive inflation” (Casella and Eichengreen 1991, 1). With the country as unstable as it was, it was no wonder why the nation had to turn to outside help to care for their orphans. 

            Ragazzi is the Italian word for street boys and is a derogatory term used to describe orphaned children wandering Italy in the aftermath of the war. They were the homeless street children, unsupervised, unwashed, and always looking desperately for their next bit of food and protection.  “They sought shelter wherever they could access it, and scrounged for food, clothing and even cigarettes, which helped cut their hunger” (Brown 2017, par. 4).  Unfortunately, these children were left destitute, barely able to take care of themselves after a conflict that was not their own.  With the government scrambling to recover, it fell to outside help in order to take care of the orphans. One group that led the charge to try and aid the struggling nation was the Italian Welfare League. “The Italian Welfare League, initially organized as the Italian Welfare Committee, was founded in 1920 by a small group of women to promote the interests of, and (to) look after the needy Italians in New York” (Falco 2014, 6). The Italian Welfare League used their goodwill and recognition as an opportunity to help the Ragazzi.  The organization raised money that was used to help clothe the kids, feed them, try to locate their families, and eventually allow the children to return to their education. The League “set up a $250,000 fund, out of which they sent large provisions of food, clothing, money and medicine to help care for the orphaned children of postwar Italy” (Moreno n.d., par. 8). The League functioned in Italy for many years, until Italy’s economy was back on its feet and the government was able to take over the care of the country’s orphans. The League’s work was critical in helping the orphans of Italy gain a real chance to live once again.   


Brown, Mary.  2017. “Migration, Development and Immigration Reform in the Post-World War II Era: A Story of the Italian Diaspora.The Center for Migration Studies of New York (CMS). Accessed March 17, 2019.

Casella, Alessandra, and Barry Eichengreen. 1991. “Halting Inflation in Italy and France after World  War II.” Nber. Accessed March 17, 2019.

Falco, Nicholas J. 2014. “Guide to the Italian Welfare League Records.” The Center for Migration Studies. Accessed March 17, 2019.– content/uploads/2016/07/cms_003.pdf.

Moreno, Barry. n.d. “Our History.” Italian Welfare League. Accessed March 17, 2019.

Perri, Fabrizio, and Vincenzo Quadrini. 2000. “The Great Depression in Italy: Trade Restrictions and Real Wage Rigidities.” Journal of Economic Literature. Accessed March 17, 2019.