What is the Rust Belt?

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  • Written By: Michael Pollick
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 01 December 2018
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Once upon a time, the region between the Midwest and mid-Atlantic states, roughly from Wisconsin to New Jersey, enjoyed booming economic growth because of an abundance of coal, iron ore, and other important natural resources. These states also had the ability to transport finished products over railroads or waterways to their own port cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo. By the 1970s, however, many of the region's factories had shut down, and the abundance of shuttered buildings guarded by rusting gates gave the region a new name, the Rust Belt.

The Rust Belt region, most notably the Midwest states of Michigan, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania, specialized in the manufacture of steel and steel-derived products such as automobiles and industrial equipment. The abundant supplies of coal mined from West Virginia and Pennsylvania could be easily transported to the steel mills of Cleveland and Pittsburgh, and the finished steel could be exported internationally from mid-Atlantic ports in Boston and New York City. With a steady supply of work also came an economic boom for the cities which supported the workers. This name would never have been applied to places such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland, or Detroit during the early 20th century.


By the late 1950s, however, there was already some economic writing on the wall for the region. Foreign steel was becoming cheaper to import and higher in overall quality. Negotiations between unionized workers and management resulted in higher wages and other benefits, but domestic steel buyers were no longer willing to absorb the higher cost of American steel produced in the Midwestern factories. By the 1970s, a general downturn in the American economy combined with foreign competition caused many steel mills and other heavy production industries to shut down, thus creating the severely depressed area.

Many cities located in the Rust Belt had a very difficult time recovering from the loss of major industries as well as the flight of workers to other regions of the country. Recruiting new industry became a challenge for these states as companies sought cheaper labor and lower production costs in the non-unionized Sun Belt states located in the Deep South. Some cities, such as Detroit, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh, were hit especially hard, since their economies depended very heavily on the manufacturing industry.

Eventually, many cities located in the heart of the region did find new industries to replace the shuttered steel mills and manufacturing plants, but many of these new industries, such as medical research and plastics, only hire a fraction of the number of workers as the former plants once did. Some new Rust Belt industries also require specialized training, although many former factory workers have enrolled in training programs which improve their chances of being hired as skilled laborers.

The region still faces many challenges in its continuing economic recovery, but the future looks more promising for cities that have managed to find new industries. Many economists do not foresee a return to the manufacturing economy which originally powered the Rust Belt's glory days, but they do predict that the region will eventually find a niche in the service industry which will improve its general economy and attract workers back to the area.


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