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.
- 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 Illinois, Indiana, 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 a typically drastic economic decline. 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 moves 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—are:
- New York—upstate and western regions
- West Virginia
There are other states in the U.S. that have also experienced declines in manufacturing, such as in the Deep South, but they are not usually considered part of the Rust Belt. It often refers to specific, formerly prosperous manufacturing centers in Midwestern and Northeastern cities like Detroit; Toledo, Ohio; Pittsburgh; and Buffalo, N.Y.
The region was home to some of America’s most prominent industries, such as steel production and automobile manufacturing. During its boom time, these Rust Belt cities produced heavy industrial materials and consumer products and developed storage and transportation systems to distribute them to the rest of the country. 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 poverty rates from the U.S. Census Bureau as of 2020, the most recent data available, 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 United States is 11.4%.
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—namely coal and iron ore—led to its prosperity, 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 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 from the 1950s to the 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 that 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 U.S. opened trade overseas, resulting in a flood of imports, and shifted manufacturing production to the South.
From 1950 to 1980, the Rust Belt faced competitive pressure—domestically and overseas—and had to ratchet down wages and prices, as well as 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.
Detroit, one of the hardest-hit cities in the Rust Belt, had its population decline from a peak of 1,849,568 in 1950 to 632,464 in 2021.
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 in that way when he was the Democratic presidential candidate in 1984. Attacking then-President Ronald Reagan, Mondale claimed that 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 mostly dominated by older, non-college-educated white voters, which traditionally lean toward 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, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin red—states that had voted Democrat for a long time, and that Barack Obama won in 2012.
In the 2020 election, Joe Biden was able to flip back Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. However, there continues to be a population shift from the Rust Belt states toward 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 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 most blue-collar workers. One study reported on 13 American cities that were particularly vulnerable to the twin crises of the pandemic and declines in mental health. Nine 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 amid the pandemic wiped out all the gains that the manufacturing sector experienced 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 .” In Pennsylvania, only a few months into the pandemic, 29.6% of the workforce filed for unemployment, the report added.
What are the Rust Belt states?
Illinois, Indiana, 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 to the 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 U.S. expanded to the Pacific Coast. These states were part of the Northwest Ordinance. This term became obsolete once the U.S. 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 more than 60% of the steel in the country.
What is the Sun Belt?
The Sun Belt is a region of the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 lost many jobs.
This resulted in a large-scale exodus of the population to look 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. Detroit, for example, has seen a revitalization of its downtown.
Belt Magazine. “Why the Term ‘Rust Belt’ Matters.”
U.S. Census Bureau. “Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2020.”
U.S. Census Bureau. “Income and Poverty in the United States: 2020: Percentage of People in Poverty by State Using 2- and 3-Year Averages: 2017–2018 and 2019–2020.”
World Atlas. “Rust Belt States.”
Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. “Competition and the Decline of the Rust Belt.”
Biggest U.S. Cities. “Detroit, Michigan Population History 1840–2021.”
U.S. Census Bureau. “Detroit City, Michigan.”
The Atlantic. “Democrats’ Future Is Moving Beyond the Rust Belt.”
U.S. News & World Report. “The U.S. Cities Most Susceptible to COVID-19, Poor Mental Health.”
Voice of America (VOA) News. “Path to White House Runs Through America’s ‘Rust Belt’.”
Politico. “‘They Are Angry’: Pandemic and Economic Collapse Slam Trump Across Rust Belt.”
Ohio History Central. “Rustbelt.”