What Is the Rust Belt?

The Rust Belt is a colloquial term used to describe the geographic region stretching from New York through the Midwest that was once dominated by the coal industry, steel production, and manufacturing. The Rust Belt became an industrial hub due to its proximity to the Great Lakes, canals, and rivers, which allowed companies to access raw materials and ship out finished products.

The region received the name "Rust Belt" in the late 1970s, after a sharp decline in industrial work left many factories abandoned and desolate, causing increased rust from exposure to the elements. It is also referred to as the Manufacturing Belt and the Factory Belt.

Key Takeaways

  • The Rust Belt refers to the geographic region from New York through the Midwest that was once dominated by manufacturing.
  • The Rust Belt is synonymous with regions facing industrial decline and abandoned factories rusted from exposure to the elements.
  • The Rust Belt was home to thousands of blue-collar jobs in coal plants, steel and automotive production, and the weapons industry.
  • The states considered to be part of the Rust Belt are Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.
  • The demographics and economic situation of the Rust Belt make it an important area for U.S. presidential elections.
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Understanding the Rust Belt

The term "Rust Belt" is often used in a derogatory sense to describe parts of the country that have seen an economic decline; typically very drastic. The rust belt region represents the deindustrialization of an area, which is often accompanied by fewer high-paying jobs and high poverty rates. The result has been a change in the urban landscape as the local population has moved to other areas of the country in search of work.

Although there is no definitive boundary, the states that are considered in the Rust Belt—at least partly—include the following:

  • Indiana
  • Illinois
  • Michigan
  • Missouri
  • New York—upstate and western regions
  • Ohio
  • Pennsylvania
  • West Virginia
  • Wisconsin

There are other states in the U.S. that have also experienced declines in manufacturing, such as states in the deep south, but they are not usually considered part of the Rust Belt.

The region was home to some of America's most prominent industries, such as steel production and automobile manufacturing. Once recognized as the industrial heartland, the region has experienced a sharp downturn in industrial activity from the increased cost of domestic labor, competition from overseas, technology advancements replacing workers, and the capital-intensive nature of manufacturing.

Poverty in the Rust Belt

Blue-collar jobs have increasingly moved overseas, forcing local governments to rethink the type of manufacturing businesses that can succeed in the area. While some cities managed to adopt new technologies, others still struggle with rising poverty levels and declining populations.

Below are the poverty rates from the U.S. Census Bureau as of 2020 for each of the Rust Belt states listed above, calculated as a two-year average from 2019 to 2020. For comparison, the poverty rate of the entire U.S. is 11.4%.

State Poverty Rate
Indiana 11.1%
Illinois 8.6%
Michigan 10.6%
Missouri  10.0%
New York 12.1%
Ohio 12.5%
Pennsylvania 9.7%
West Virginia 14.0%
Wisconsin 8.2%

All of the Rust Belt states, except for New York and Ohio have seen a decrease in poverty rates in the last four years.

History of the Rust Belt

Before being known as the Rust Belt, the area was generally known as the country's Factory, Steel, or Manufacturing Belt. This area, once a booming hub of economic activity, represented a great portion of U.S. industrial growth and development.

The natural resources that were found in the area led to its prosperity—namely coal and iron ore—along with labor and ready access to transport by available waterways. This led to the rise in coal and steel plants, which later spawned the weapons, automotive, and auto parts industries. People seeking employment began moving to the area, which was dominated by both the coal and steel industries, changing the overall landscape of the region.

There is no definitive boundary for the Rust Belt, but it generally includes the area from New York through the Midwest.

But that began to change between the 1950s and 1970s. Many manufacturers were still using expensive and outdated equipment and machinery and were saddled with the high costs of domestic labor and materials. To compensate, a good portion of them began looking elsewhere for cheaper steel and labor—namely from foreign sources—which would ultimately lead to the collapse of the region.

Decline of the Rust Belt

Most research suggests that the Rust Belt started to falter in the late 1970s, but the decline may have started earlier, notably in the 1950s, when the region's dominant industries faced minimal competition.

Powerful labor unions in the automotive and steel manufacturing sectors ensured labor competition stayed at a minimum. The area accounted for more than half of all manufacturing jobs in the country in 1950. As a result, many of the established companies had very little incentive to innovate or expand productivity as they operated like monopolies.

This came back to haunt the region when the United States opened trade overseas, resulting in a flood of imports, and shifted manufacturing production to the south.

Detroit, one of the hardest-hit cities in the Rust Belt, saw its population decline from a peak of 1,849,568 in 1950 to 639,111 in 2020.

From 1950 to 1980, the Rust Belt faced competitive pressure—domestically and overseas—and had to ratchet down wages and prices, as well shutter many manufacturing jobs. This resulted in almost a two-thirds decline in employment share for the region.

This shows that competitive pressure in productivity and labor markets is important to incentivize firms to innovate. However, when those incentives are weak, it can drive resources to more prosperous regions of the country.

The region's population also showed a rapid decline. What was once a hub for immigrants from the rest of the country and abroad, led to an exodus of people out of the area as jobs were no longer readily available. Thousands of well-paying blue-collar jobs were eliminated, forcing people to move away in search of employment and better living conditions.

Politics and the Rust Belt

The term "Rust Belt" is generally attributed to Walter Mondale, who referred to this part of the country when he was the Democratic presidential candidate in 1984. Attacking President Ronald Reagan, Mondale claimed his opponent's policies were ruining what he called the Rust Bowl. He was misquoted by the media as saying the rust belt, and the term stuck. Since then, the term has consistently been used to describe the area's economic decline.

The Rust Belt is still predominantly dominated by older, non-college-educated white voters, which traditionally lean towards the Republican party. However, many Rust Belt states have historically voted Democrat. In an unexpected turn of events, in the 2016 election, Donald Trump was able to turn Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania red; states that had voted Democrat for a long time, and that Obama won in 2012.

In the 2020 election, Biden was able to flip back Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. However, there continues to be a population shift from the Rust Belt states towards the Sun Belt states, which would leave the Rust Belt states a Republican stronghold, due to the older, non-college-educated white voters.

The Democratic party will have to focus on the Sun Belt states to counter against the Republican gains in the Rust Belt states, as the Sun Belt states are adding more "diverse, white-collar, and urbanized voters."

Covid-19 and the Rust Belt

The Covid-19 pandemic hit the Rust Belt hard. White-collar workers throughout the country were able to work from home, however, this was not possible for blue-collar workers. One study reported on 13 American cities that were particularly vulnerable to the twin crises of Covid and declines in mental health. Nine out of these 13 cities were in the Rust Belt.

Furthermore, lack of business during the pandemic shuttered many factories in the Rust Belt, exasperating the already dire situation. Many of the industries that were hit hard during the pandemic, such as timber, have large operations in Rust Belt states.

For example, in Wisconsin, job losses from March to July of 2020 due to the shuttering of manufacturing jobs due to the pandemic wiped out all the gains the manufacturing sector saw in the state since 2011.

According to Politico, the "region has been devastated by job losses amid pandemic-induced economic shutdowns, in some cases far outpacing the national average in terms of the proportion of their workforces that have applied for unemployment benefits since mid-March 2020. In Pennsylvania, after only a few months into the Pandemic, 29.6% of the workforce filed for unemployment.

What Are the Rust Belt States?

Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Wisconsin are considered to be the Rust Belt states. These states were the manufacturing center of the United States, employing a large part of the population in manufacturing jobs. As manufacturing jobs started moving down south and overseas, the area witnessed large-scale unemployment, decay, and decreases in population as people left to find employment elsewhere.

Why Is It Called the Midwest?

It is called the Midwest because of the location of those states in the 1800s before the United States expanded to the Pacific Coast. These states were part of the Northwest Ordinance. This term became obsolete once the United States expanded westward, resulting in these states becoming the "Midwest."

What Is the Steel Belt?

The Steel Belt is one of the former nicknames of the Rust Belt before the region fell into decline. The area was one of the largest steel-producing regions of the country, being home to U.S. Steel, which at one point produced greater than 60% of the steel in the United States.

What Is the Sun Belt?

The Sun Belt is a region of the United States that extends from the Southeast all the way across to the Southwest. It begins in southern Virginia going down to Florida and then across to southern California. It is termed the "sun" belt because of the warm and sunny climate of the region. The primary states of the Sun Belt are Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah.

The Bottom Line

The term "Rust Belt" denotes a region of the United States that was once a booming hub of industrial and manufacturing jobs, due to the companies located there, such as automotive and steel companies. After the 1950s, as manufacturing moved overseas and to the south, and as the country opened up to imports, the region witnessed many jobs being lost.

This resulted in a large-scale exodus of the population looking for employment elsewhere, resulting in urban decay and poverty. In the last decade, however, many of these regions are pivoting away from manufacturing and attracting new service-related jobs, such as Detroit, which has seen a revitalization of its downtown.