What Is 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 in the world, it is most commonly used to refer to the U.S. Northeast and Midwest, which were previously dominant in automobile and steel manufacturing. 

Understanding Rust Bowl

Rust bowl is a play on the term dust bowl, which is 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 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 and concentrated areas in the Northeast, became prosperous during the post-World War II-era manufacturing boom. These areas produced heavy industrial materials and consumer products and developed the 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. While some found new industries, most lost prosperity and spiraled into recession. They became known as the rust bowl, which had the same emotional resonance as the term dust bowl for Americans.

Rust bowl and rust belt were poignant and descriptive terms in the 1980s through 2000, but in the last few decades as the entire country has shifted toward service and information industries, these areas have begun to regain economic ground relative to the rest of the country.

Rust Bowl and Rust Belt

While both rust bowl and rust belt are names for types of regions that once flourished with manufacturing but became economically depressed with the loss of that manufacturing, rust bowl is most often used as a name of a type of place. Rust belt, or Rust Belt, usually refers specifically to the formerly-prosperous manufacturing centers across the Midwest, including Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit and Milwaukee, and sometimes including Pittsburgh and Buffalo. These were originally called the Steel Belt or Manufacturing Belt, so when they declined with the loss of manufacturing overseas, they became known as the Rust Belt.