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The rusting steel stacks of Bethlehem Steel in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, one of the world's largest manufacturers of steel for most of the 20th century. In 1982, how­ever, Bethlehem Steel suspended most of its manufacturing. The company filed for bank­ruptcy in 2001 and was dissolved in 2003.

The Rust Belt, formerly the Steel Belt, is a region of the Northeastern, Midwestern United States, and the very northern parts of the Southern United States. It includes Upstate New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Indiana, Illinois, the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, southeastern Wisconsin, and small parts of Kentucky, New Jersey, and the St. Louis metropolitan area in Missouri. [1] [2] Cities in the Rust Belt include Allentown, Buffalo, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Gary, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Rochester, Toledo, Trenton, and Youngstown.

The term "Rust Belt" is a dysphemism to describe industry that has "rusted out", usually referring to the impact of deindustrialization, economic decline, population loss, and urban decay on these regions attributable to the shrinking industrial sector especially including steelmaking, automobile manufacturing, and coal mining. The term gained popularity in the U.S. beginning in the 1980s [3] when it was commonly contrasted with the Sun Belt, which was surging.

The Rust Belt experienced industrial decline starting in the 1950s. [4] The U.S. manufacturing sector as a percentage of the U.S. GDP peaked in 1953 and has been declining since. In the late 20th century, the Rust Belt began experiencing the elimination or outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, which in some cases continues in the 21st century. The region, which previously was the nation's industrial heartland, has experienced economic distress and a resulting decline in population. [5]

Since the 1980s, presidential candidates have devoted much of their time to the economic concerns of the Rust Belt region, which includes several populous swing states, including Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. These states were critical to Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 presidential election, his defeat by Democrat Joe Biden in 2020, and to the upcoming 2024 United States presidential election. [6]

New England was also hit hard by industrial decline during the same era, but cities closer to the East Coast, including Greater Boston, the New York metropolitan area, and the Washington metropolitan area adapted by diversifying or transforming their economies to shift focus towards services, advanced manufacturing, and high-tech industries. [7]


Change in total number of manufacturing jobs in metropolitan areas between 1954–2002; figures for New England are from 1958.
  >58% loss
  43–56% loss
  31–43.2% loss
  8.7–29.1% loss [US avg.: 8.65% loss]
  7.5% loss – 54.4% gain
  >62% gain
Change in per capita personal income in metropolitan counties, 1980–2002, relative to the average for U.S. metropolitan areas:
  income above avg., growth faster than avg.
  income above avg., growth avg. or below avg.
  income above avg. but decreasing
  income below avg., growth faster than avg.
  income below avg., growth avg. or below avg.
  income below avg. and further decreasing

In the 20th century, local economies in these states specialized in large-scale manufacturing of finished medium to heavy industrial and consumer products, as well as the transportation and processing of the raw materials required for heavy industry. [8] The area was referred to as the Manufacturing Belt, [9] Factory Belt, or Steel Belt as distinct from the agricultural Midwestern states forming the so-called Corn Belt and Great Plains states that are often called the "breadbasket of America". [10]

The flourishing industrial manufacturing in the region was caused in part by the proximity to the Great Lakes waterways, and abundance of paved roads, water canals, and railroads. After the transportation infrastructure linked the iron ore found in the so-called Iron Range of northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and Upper Michigan with the coking coal mined from the Appalachian Basin in Western Pennsylvania and Western Virginia, the Steel Belt was born. Soon it developed into the Factory Belt with its manufacturing cities: Chicago, Buffalo, Detroit, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Toledo, Cleveland, St. Louis, Youngstown, and Pittsburgh, among others. This region for decades served as a magnet for immigrants from Austria-Hungary, Poland, and Russia, as well as Yugoslavia, Italy, and the Levant in some areas, who provided the industrial facilities with inexpensive labor. [11] These migrants drawn by labor were also accompanied by African Americans during the Great Migration who were drawn by jobs and better economic opportunity.

Following several "boom" periods from the late-19th to the mid-20th century, cities in this area struggled to adapt to a variety of adverse economic and social conditions. From 1979 to 1982, known as the Volcker shock, [12] [13] the U.S. Federal Reserve decided to raise the base interest rate in the United States to 19%. High-interest rates attracted wealthy foreign "hot money" into U.S. banks and caused the U.S. dollar to appreciate. This made U.S. products more expensive for foreigners to buy and also made imports much cheaper for Americans to purchase. The misaligned exchange rate was not rectified until 1986, by which time Japanese imports, in particular, had made rapid inroads into U.S. markets. [14]

From 1987 to 1999, the U.S. stock market went into a stratospheric rise, and this continued to pull wealthy foreign money into U.S. banks, which biased the exchange rate against manufactured goods. Related issues include the decline of the iron and steel industry, the movement of manufacturing to the southeastern states with their lower labor costs, [15] the layoffs due to the rise of automation in industrial processes, the decreased need for labor in making steel products, new organizational methods such as just-in-time manufacturing which allowed factories to maintain production with fewer workers, the internationalization of American business, and the liberalization of foreign trade policies due to globalization. [16] Cities struggling with these conditions shared several difficulties, including population loss, lack of education, declining tax revenues, high unemployment and crime, drugs, swelling welfare rolls, deficit spending, and poor municipal credit ratings. [17] [18] [19] [20] [21]


The Great Lakes megalopolis shown in orange is associated with the Rust Belt.
Sectors of the U.S. economy as percent of GDP between 1947 and 2009 [22]

Since the term "Rust Belt" is used to refer to a set of economic and social conditions rather than to an overall geographical region of the U.S., the Rust Belt has no precise boundaries. The extent to which a community may have been described as a "Rust Belt city" depends on how great a role industrial manufacturing played in its local economy in the past and how it does now, as well as on perceptions of the economic viability and living standards of the present day.[ citation needed]

News media occasionally refer to a patchwork of defunct centers of heavy industry and manufacturing across the Great Lakes and Midwestern United States as the snow belt, [23] the manufacturing belt, or the factory belt because of their vibrant industrial economies in the past. This includes most of the cities of the Midwest as far west as the Mississippi River, including St. Louis, and many of those in the Great Lakes and Northern New York. [24] At the center of this expanse lies an area stretching from northern Indiana and southern Michigan in the west to Upstate New York in the east, where local tax revenues as of 2004 relied more heavily on manufacturing than on any other sector. [25] [26]

Prior to World War II, the cities in the Rust Belt region were among the largest in the U.S. However, by the 20th century's end their population had fallen the most in the country. [27]


Deteriorating U.S. net international investment position (NIIP) has caused concern among economists over the effects of outsourcing and high U.S. trade deficits over the long-run. [28]
A disused grain elevator in Buffalo, New York
An abandoned Fisher auto body plant in Detroit, Michigan
The Huber Breaker in Ashley, Pennsylvania was one of the largest anthracite coal breakers in North America; it opened in the 1930s and closed in the 1970s.

The linking of the former Northwest Territory with the once-rapidly industrializing East Coast was effected through several large-scale infrastructural projects, most notably the Erie Canal in 1825, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1830, the Allegheny Portage Railroad in 1834, and the consolidation of the New York Central Railroad following the end of the American Civil War in 1875. A gate was opened between a variety of burgeoning industries on the interior North American continent and the markets of large East Coast cities and Western Europe. [29]

Coal, iron ore, and other raw materials were shipped in from surrounding regions which emerged as major ports on the Great Lakes and served as transportation hubs for the region with proximity to railroad lines. Coming in the other direction were millions of European immigrants, who populated the cities along the Great Lakes shores with then-unprecedented speed. Chicago was a rural trading post in the 1840s but grew to be as big as Paris by the time of the 1893 Columbian Exposition. [29]

Early signs of the difficulty in the northern states were evident early in the 20th century before the "boom years" were even over. Lowell, Massachusetts, once the center of textile production in the U.S., was described in the magazine Harper's as a "depressed industrial desert" as early as 1931, [30] as its textile concerns were being uprooted and sent southward, primarily to the Carolinas.

In the first half of the 20th century, the Great Depression followed by American entry into World War II was followed by a rapid return to economic growth, during which much of the industrial North reached its peak population and industrial output.

The northern cities experienced changes that followed the end of World War II, with the onset of the outward migration of residents to newer suburban communities, [31] and the declining role of manufacturing in the American economy.

Outsourcing of manufacturing jobs in tradeable goods has been an important issue in the region. One source has been globalization and the expansion of worldwide free trade agreements. Anti-globalization groups argue that trade with developing countries has resulted in stiff competition from countries such as China which pegs its currency to the dollar and has much lower prevailing wages, forcing domestic wages to drift downward. Some economists are concerned that long-run effects of high trade deficits and outsourcing are a cause of economic problems in the U.S. [32] with high external debt (amount owed to foreign lenders) and a serious deterioration in the United States net international investment position (NIIP) (−24% of GDP). [28] [33] [34]

Some economists contend that the U.S. is borrowing to fund consumption of imports while accumulating unsustainable amounts of debt. [28] [34] On June 26, 2009, Jeff Immelt, CEO of General Electric, called for the U.S. to increase its manufacturing base employment to 20% of the workforce, commenting that the U.S. has outsourced too much in some areas and can no longer rely on the financial sector and consumer spending to drive demand. [35]

Since the 1960s, the expansion of worldwide free trade agreements have been less favorable to U.S. workers. Imported goods such as steel cost much less to produce in Third World countries with cheap foreign labor (see steel crisis). The introduction of pollution regulation in the late 1960's, combined with rapidly increasing U.S. energy costs (see 1970s energy crisis) caused much U.S. heavy industry to begin moving to other countries. Beginning with the recession of 1970–71, a new pattern of deindustrializing economy emerged. Competitive devaluation combined with each successive downturn saw traditional U.S. manufacturing workers experiencing lay-offs. In general, in the Factory Belt employment in the manufacturing sector declined by 32.9% between 1969 and 1996. [36]

Wealth-producing primary and secondary sector jobs such as those in manufacturing and computer software were often replaced by much-lower-paying wealth-consuming jobs such as those in retail and government in the service sector when the economy recovered. [37]

In 1984, an incremental expansion of the U.S. trade deficit with China began combined with growing trade deficits with Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. As a result, the traditional manufacturing workers in the region have experienced economic upheaval. This effect has devastated government budgets across the U.S. and increased corporate borrowing to fund retiree benefits. [33] [34] Some economists believe that GDP and employment can be dragged down by large long-run trade deficits. [37]


In 1999, Francis Fukuyama wrote that the social and cultural consequences of deindustrialization and manufacturing decline that turned a former thriving Factory Belt into a Rust Belt as a part of a bigger transitional trend that he called the Great Disruption: [38] "People associate the information age with the advent of the Internet in the 1990s, but the shift from the industrial era started more than a generation earlier, with the deindustrialization of the Rust Belt in the United States and comparable movements away from manufacturing in other industrialized countries. … The decline is readily measurable in statistics on crime, fatherless children, broken trust, reduced opportunities for and outcomes from education, and the like". [39]

Problems associated with the Rust Belt persist even today, particularly around the eastern Great Lakes states, and many once-booming manufacturing metropolises dramatically slowed down. [40] From 1970 to 2006, Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh lost about 45% of their population and median household incomes fell: in Cleveland and Detroit by about 30%, in Buffalo by 20%, and Pittsburgh by 10%. [41]

During the mid-1990s, several Rust Belt metropolitan areas experienced a suspension in negative growth, indicated by stabilizing unemployment, wages, and populations. [42] During the first decade of the 21st century, however, a negative trend still persisted: Detroit, Michigan lost 25.7% of its population; Gary, Indiana, 22%; Youngstown, Ohio, 18.9%; Flint, Michigan, 18.7%; and Cleveland, Ohio, 14.5%. [43]

2000–2020 population change in Rust Belt cities
City State Population
change 2020 [44] 2000 Peak
Detroit, Michigan Michigan -32.81% 639,111 951,270 1,849,568 (1950)
Gary, Indiana Indiana -31.97% 69,903 102,746 178,320 (1960)
Flint, Michigan Michigan -34.97% 81,252 124,943 196,940 (1960)
Saginaw, Michigan Michigan -28.47% 44,202 61,799 98,265 (1960)
Youngstown, Ohio Ohio -26.77% 60,068 82,026 170,002 (1930)
Cleveland, Ohio Ohio -22.11% 372,624 478,403 914,808 (1950)
Dayton, Ohio Ohio -17.17% 137,644 166,179 262,332 (1960)
Niagara Falls, New York New York -12.45% 48,671 55,593 102,394 (1960)
St. Louis, Missouri Missouri -13.39% 301,578 348,189 856,796 (1950)
Decatur, Illinois Illinois -13.85% 70,522 81,860 94,081 (1980)
Canton, Ohio Ohio -12.29% 70,872 80,806 116,912 (1950)
Buffalo, New York New York -4.89% 278,349 292,648 580,132 (1950)
Toledo, Ohio Ohio -13.63% 270,871 313,619 383,818 (1970)
Lakewood, Ohio Ohio -10.07% 50,942 56,646 70,509 (1930)
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Pennsylvania -9.44% 302,971 334,563 676,806 (1950)
Pontiac, Michigan Michigan -7.13% 61,606 66,337 85,279 (1970)
Springfield, Ohio Ohio -10.25% 58,662 65,358 82,723 (1960)
Akron, Ohio Ohio -12.26% 190,469 217,074 290,351 (1960)
Hammond, Indiana Indiana -6.22% 77,879 83,048 111,698 (1960)
Cincinnati, Ohio Ohio -6.63% 309,317 331,285 503,998 (1950)
Parma, Ohio Ohio -5.26% 81,146 85,655 100,216 (1970)
Lorain, Ohio Ohio -6.74% 64,028 68,652 78,185 (1970)
Chicago, Illinois Illinois -5.17% 2,746,388 2,896,016 3,620,962 (1950)
South Bend, Indiana Indiana -4.02% 103,453 107,789 132,445 (1960)
Charleston, West Virginia West Virginia -8.53% 48,864 53,421 85,796 (1960)

In the late 2000s, American manufacturing recovered faster from the Great Recession of 2008 than the other sectors of the economy, [45] and a number of initiatives, both public and private, are encouraging the development of alternative fuel, nano and other technologies. [46]

Along with the neighboring Golden Horseshoe of southern Ontario, the Rust Belt composes one of the world's major manufacturing regions. [47] [48]


Delving into the past and musing on the future of Rust Belt states, a 2010 Brookings Institution report suggests that the Great Lakes region has a sizable potential for transformation, citing already existing global trade networks, clean energy/low carbon capacity, developed innovation infrastructure, and higher educational network. [49]

Different strategies were proposed in order to reverse the fortunes of the former Factory Belt including building casinos and convention centers, retaining the creative class through arts and downtown renewal, encouraging the knowledge economy type of entrepreneurship, and other steps. This includes growing new industrial base with a pool of skilled labor, rebuilding the infrastructure and infrasystems, creating research and development-focused university-business partnerships, and close cooperation between central, state and local government, and business. [50]

New types of research and development-intensive nontraditional manufacturing have emerged recently in the Rust Belt, including biotechnology, the polymer industry, infotech, and nanotech. Information technology is seen as representing an opportunity for the Rust Belt's revitalization. [51] Among the successful recent examples is the Detroit Aircraft Corporation, which specializes in unmanned aerial systems integration, testing and aerial cinematography services. [52]

In Pittsburgh, robotics research centers and companies such as the National Robotics Engineering Center and Robotics Institute, Aethon Inc., American Robot Corporation, Automatika, Quantapoint, Blue Belt Technologies, and Seegrid are creating state-of-the-art robotic technology applications. Akron, a former "Rubber Capital of the World" that lost 35,000 jobs after major tire and rubber manufacturers Goodrich, Firestone, and General Tire closed their production lines, is now again well known around the world as a center of polymer research with four hundred polymer-related manufacturing and distribution companies operating in the area. The turnaround was accomplished in part by a partnership between Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, which chose to stay, the University of Akron, and the city mayor's office. The Akron Global Business Accelerator that jump-started a score of successful business ventures in Akron resides in the refurbished B.F. Goodrich tire factory. [53]

Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, creates another promising avenue for the manufacturing resurgence. Such companies as MakerGear from Beachwood, Ohio, or ExOne Company from North Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, are designing and manufacturing industrial and consumer products using 3-D imaging systems. [54]

In 2013, The Economist reported a growing trend of reshoring, or inshoring, of manufacturing when a growing number of American companies were moving their production facilities from overseas back home. [55] Rust Belt states can ultimately benefit from this process of international insourcing.

There have also been attempts to reinvent properties in the Rust Belt in order to reverse its economic decline. Buildings with compartmentalization unsuitable for today's uses were acquired and renewed to facilitate new businesses. These business activities suggest that the revival is taking place in the once-stagnant area. [56] The CHIPS and Science Act, which became effective in August 2022, was designed to rebuild the manufacturing sector with thousands of jobs and research programs in states like Ohio focusing on making products like semiconductors due to the global chip shortage of the early 2020s. [57]

The Rust Belt is depicted in various films, television shows, and songs. It is the subject of the popular Billy Joel song, " Allentown," originally released on The Nylon Curtain album in 1982. The song uses Allentown as a metaphor for the resilience of working class Americans in distressed industrial cities during the recession of the early 1980s.

The Rust Belt is the setting for Philipp Meyer's 2009 novel American Rust and its 2021 television adaptation. A core plot device of both is the economic, social, and population decline [58] facing the fictional Western Pennsylvanian town of Buell, itself brought about by thorough de-industrialization typical of the region. [59]

The 21st century evolution of this region of the U.S. is also depicted through the fictional town of New Canaan, Ohio, in Stephen Markley's 2018 bestseller novel, Ohio. The town is described through both the teenage glamour of high school lens in the early 2000s and the harsh reality lens of what the town became 10 years later.

See also


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  4. ^ "Competition and the Decline of the Rust Belt | Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis".
  5. ^ Leeman, Mark A. From Good Works to a Good Job: An Exploration of Poverty and Work in Appalachian Ohio. PhD dissertation, Ohio University, 2007.
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  8. ^ Teaford, Jon C. Cities of the Heartland: The Rise and Fall of the Industrial Midwest. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.
  9. ^ Meyer, David R. 1989. "Midwestern Industrialization and the American Manufacturing Belt in the Nineteenth Century." Journal of Economic History 49(4):921–937.
  10. ^ "Interactives . United States History Map. Fifty States". Archived from the original on April 4, 2017. Retrieved June 7, 2013.
  11. ^ , McClelland, Ted. Nothin' but Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times, and Hopes of America's Industrial Heartland. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2013.
  12. ^ Wolf, Zachary B. (2022-07-27). "This kind of shock to the economy will have consequences". CNN. Retrieved 2023-10-03.
  13. ^ "Volcker Shock: key economic indicators 1979-1987". Statista. 2022-10-10. Retrieved 2023-10-03.
  14. ^ Marie Christine Duggan (2017). "Deindustrialization in the Granite State: What Keene, New Hampshire Can Tell Us About the Roles of Monetary Policy and Financialization in the Loss of US Manufacturing Jobs". Dollars & Sense. No. November/December 2017.
  15. ^ Alder, Simeon, David Lagakos, and Lee Ohanian. (2012). "The Decline of the US Rust Belt: A Macroeconomic Analysis" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on December 3, 2013.{{ cite web}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list ( link)
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  17. ^ Jargowsky, Paul A. Poverty and Place: Ghettos, Barrios, and the American City. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1997.
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  22. ^ "Who Makes It?". Retrieved November 28, 2011.
  23. ^ "Sun On The Snow Belt (editorial)". Chicago Tribune. August 25, 1985. Retrieved September 22, 2011. The Northern states, once the foundry of the nation, are known now as the Rust Belt or the Snow Belt, in invidious comparison to the supposedly booming Sun Belt.
  24. ^ Neumann, Tracy (2016). Remaking the Rust Belt. University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN  9780812292893.
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  27. ^ Hansen, Jeff; et al. (March 10, 2007). "Which Way Forward?". The Birmingham News. Retrieved September 21, 2011.
  28. ^ a b c Bivens, L. Josh (December 14, 2004). Debt and the dollar Archived December 17, 2004, at the Wayback Machine Economic Policy Institute. Retrieved on June 28, 2009.
  29. ^ a b Kunstler, James Howard (1996). Home From Nowhere: Remaking Our Everyday World for the 21st Century. New York: Touchstone/Simon and Schuster. ISBN  978-0-684-83737-6.
  30. ^ Marion, Paul (November 2009). "Timeline of Lowell History From the 1600s to 2009". Yankee Magazine. Archived from the original on 2016-03-04. Retrieved 2015-12-27.
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Further reading

  • Broughton, Chad (2015). Boom, Bust, Exodus: The Rust Belt, the Maquilas, and a Tale of Two Cities. Oxford University Press. ISBN  978-0199765614.
  • Cooke, Philip. The Rise of the Rustbelt. London: UCL Press, 1995. ISBN  0-203-13454-0
  • Coppola, Alessandro. Apocalypse town: cronache dalla fine della civiltà urbana. Roma: Laterza, 2012. ISBN  9788842098409
  • Denison, Daniel R., and Stuart L. Hart. Revival in the rust belt. Ann Arbor, Mich: University of Michigan Press, 1987. ISBN  0-87944-322-7
  • Engerman, Stanley L., and Robert E. Gallman. The Cambridge Economic History of the United States: The Twentieth Century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  • Hagedorn, John, and Perry Macon. People and Folks: Gangs, Crime, and the Underclass in a Rust-Belt City. Chicago: Lake View Press, 1988. ISBN  0-941702-21-9
  • High, Steven C. Industrial Sunset: The Making of North America's Rust Belt, 1969–1984. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003. ISBN  0-8020-8528-8
  • Higgins, James Jeffrey. Images of the Rust Belt. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1999. ISBN  0-87338-626-4
  • Lopez, Steven Henry. Reorganizing the Rust Belt: An Inside Study of the American Labor Movement. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. ISBN  0-520-23565-7
  • Meyer, David R. (1989). "Midwestern Industrialization and the American Manufacturing Belt in the Nineteenth Century". The Journal of Economic History. 49 (4): 921–937. doi: 10.1017/S0022050700009505. ISSN  0022-0507. JSTOR  2122744. S2CID  154436086.
  • Preston, Richard. American Steel. New York: Avon Books, 1992. ISBN  0-13-029604-X
  • Rotella, Carlo. Good with Their Hands: Boxers, Bluesmen, and Other Characters from the Rust Belt. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. ISBN  0-520-22562-7
  • Teaford, Jon C. Cities of the Heartland: The Rise and Fall of the Industrial Midwest. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993. ISBN  0-253-35786-1
  • Warren, Kenneth. The American Steel Industry, 1850–1970: A Geographical Interpretation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973. ISBN  0-8229-3597-X
  • Winant, Gabriel. The Next Shift: The Fall of Industry and the Rise of Health Care in Rust Belt America (Harvard University Press, 2021), focus on Pittsburgh