What Is the Rust Bowl?

"Rust Bowl" is another name for Rust Belt, a geographic region that was formerly a manufacturing or industrial powerhouse but is now in deep, seemingly irreversible decline. While a rust bowl can occur anywhere globally, it is most commonly used to refer to the U.S. Northeast and Midwest, which were previously dominant in automobile and steel manufacturing. 

Key Takeaway

  • The term "rust bowl" is a reference to the regions that were former steel or manufacturing belts.
  • When manufacturing jobs were moved overseas, once prosperous areas were referred to as the "rust belt" or the "rust bowl."
  • In the U.S., these terms often refer to sections of the Midwest and Northeast. Although the name "rust bowl" is not exclusively used for these regions, or even in the U.S. A rust bowl can be located anywhere globally, where poverty has occurred due to the loss of factory jobs.
  • Rebuilding to the Rust Bowl region has been a recurring theme in American politics.

Understanding the Rust Bowl

"Rust Bowl" is a play on the term "dust bowl", a term describing formerly prosperous farming regions in Oklahoma, Kansas, and parts of Texas that underwent years of drought and became literally filled with dust. This natural disaster coincided with the Great Depression, which accentuated the loss of farm production and income for farmers. The destruction and despair of the dust bowl entered the American consciousness through John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath.

Rust bowl as a term expresses the same loss and hopelessness as dust bowl, but for areas that boomed in the early and mid-1900s with heavy manufacturing. These areas, which formed a belt across the Midwest through Pittsburgh and up to Buffalo, N.Y., and concentrated areas in the Northeast, became prosperous during the post-World War II-era manufacturing boom.

During this boom time, these cities produced heavy industrial materials and consumer products and developed storage and transportation systems to distribute them to the rest of the country.

Once manufacturing of these categories shifted to other areas, including Mexico and countries in Asia, these regions struggled to adjust. Simultaneously, some manufacturing cities and towns could stay afloat economically, but most lost prosperity and spiraled into recession. The region became known as the Rust Bowl, which had the same emotional resonance as the term "dust bowl" for Americans.

Rust Bowl vs. Rust Belt

Rust Bowl and Rust Belt are often used interchangeably. However, the Rust Belt more often refers to specific, formerly-prosperous manufacturing centers in Midwestern and Northeastern cities like Detriot and Toledo, Ohio, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo, New York. This phrase was coined because the regions housing these once manufacturing hubs were originally called the Steel Belt or Manufacturing Belt, but when they declined, they became known as the Rust Belt.

Whether the region is referred to as the Rust Bowl or the Rust Belt, the meaning is the same: an area that fell into economic hardship after manufacturing jobs were lost as factories closed and moved out of the country.

When the manufacturing plants closed down, workers in Rust Bowl communities lost their livelihoods, and the quality of life in the region declined.

Special Considerations

As U.S. jobs shift toward service and information industries, Rust Bowl regions are gradually regaining economic ground. For example, in Detroit, emerging technology sectors like biotechnology and information systems are helping to build a resurgence of well-paying jobs and provide economic opportunities to revitalize this former "Rust Bowl" city.