The “Rust Belt” is Far From Lackluster


If students at Fordham University are forced to adhere to specific deadlines, their professors should also follow suit (Courtesy of Flickr).

by Faustino Galante

The term “Rust Belt” is a dated phrase and does not accurately represent the growing potential of the areas it includes. (Courtesy of Flickr).

On the Nov. 8 2016, business mogul Donald J. Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States. Leading up to election night, politicians (both on the left and the right), the media and the public discounted the idea of a Trump presidency. Believing that his racist rhetoric and anti-establishment principles were simply not enough to win Trump the election, most people presumed that Hillary Clinton would be the next president of the United States. However, what many failed to consider was the Trump campaign’s effect on America’s former industrial heartland: the “Rust Belt.”

Coined during the 1984 presidential race between incumbent republican Ronald Regan and former vice president Walter Mondale, the term “Rust Belt” has become a staple of political and scholarly vernacular and is commonly used to group together the cities and states residing in America’s deindustrialized heartland. Despite lacking clear cut borders, politicians, scholars and media outlets have used the title frequently.

As a result of the term’s usage, our society has tended to simply focus on the region’s reluctance to modernize their industries and its failure to keep up with a globalized market throughout the ‘60s and the ‘80s. However, it has repeatedly failed to view places within the “Rust Belt” as separate entities, despite the fact that they took different paths following the demises of their industrial sectors.
One cannot contend against the notion that formerly industrial Midwestern cities were economically weakened due to the “hollowing out” of their industrial sectors. I argue that using the term “Rust Belt” in order to classify them as a collective should be considered an outdated mode of over-simplifying a region which has proved economically diverse in recent years.

Though cities within the “Rust Belt” suffered similar effects of globalism throughout the second half of the 20th century, when analyzed individually, it becomes increasingly obvious that the cities often evolved in dissimilar fashion following the downfalls of their industrial sectors. Cities such as Youngstown, Ohio; Detroit, Michigan; Cleveland, Ohio; and Allentown, Pennsylvania serve as great case studies that exemplify the weakness of utilizing the term “Rust Belt.” The effects of deindustrialization are by no means pretty. Job loss, bankruptcy, scandal and social desolation resulting from the demise of a city’s industrial sector can truly cripple it and lead to long-term complications.

While certain societies prove competent in battling deindustrialization, others spiral out of control. Youngstown, Ohio and Detroit, Michigan are prime examples of areas which proved inept in dealing with industrial decline. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Youngstown and Detroit were both flourishing cities that took advantage of an industrialized America. Youngstown was known for housing some of the largest steel companies in the United States. Likewise, Detroit prided itself in hosting the “Big Three” automobile companies: Ford, General Motors and Chrysler. Unfortunately for both cities, globalization beginning in the 1950s wiped out their once flourishing industrial sectors.

Today, both cities have emerged as “poster children” for postindustrial decline. Though differing in regards to their population numbers (Detroit nearly doubles Youngstown in population), both cities distinguish themselves in the fact that they have utterly failed to demonstrate any signs of economic recovery since the 1960s. The question subsequently arises: why were Youngstown and Detroit so unfortunate in comparison to their “Rust Belt” counterparts?

To answer this question, one must steer clear of analyzing the “Rust Belt” region in a holistic fashion. When the post-industrial socioeconomic trends of these cities are studied individually, it becomes clear that, unlike other cities residing in America’s former industrial heartland, Youngstown and Detroit lacked economic diversification, strong leadership and were riddled with social struggles. Weak leaders in both cities failed to rally their respective populations in a time of economic crisis. As a result, working class inhabitants became keen on maintaining the status quo and furiously vented their frustrations. Blue-collar residents of Youngstown made known that they wanted their steel jobs back and workers in Detroit fought hard to bring back the automobile industry.

However, the working classes of both cities failed to recognize that their ideas of re-industrialization were delusional. Each city’s government made it known that it was not in favor of trying to bring back manufacturing to their cities. Instead of establishing plans to spur the economy, Youngstown and Detroit found themselves in the midst of social strife and failed to incentivize economic diversification. Today, not much has changed.

When one thinks about the “Rust Belt,” cities such as Youngstown and Detroit seem to always come to mind. Many fail to consider that other cities in this “region” took different paths following the extinctions of their industrial sectors in the 1950s. Cleveland and Allentown, while not perfect, managed to successfully rebuild their shattered economies. Like Youngstown and Detroit, Cleveland, Ohio and Allentown, Pennsylvania found themselves in economic disarray throughout the second half of the 20th century. America’s growing dependence on foreign manufacturing crushed the economies of both cities. However, Cleveland and Allentown managed to take the “high road” in regards to renovating their economies.

Cleveland and Allentown, firstly and arguably most importantly, did not allocate all of their attention to the renewal of manufacturing. Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, leaders in Cleveland establish state-of-the-art law and accounting firms, hospitals and banks to build up the city’s service sector. Similarly, leaders in Allentown managed to revitalize its economy by focusing less on bringing back manufacturing such as in the case of Detroit, and more on establishing new companies and job opportunities. The opening of the Leigh Valley Industrial park in the 1970’s helped Allentown bring in new sources of revenue. Today, unlike other suffering cities residing in the “Rust Belt,” Cleveland and Allentown have managed to become “up and coming cities.”

The four cities listed above highlight the fact that places residing within America’s “Rust Belt” are by no means homogeneous in regards to their socioeconomic atmospheres. The term “Rust Belt” is clearly riddled with negativity.

However, many use the title nonetheless. Political demagogues such as President Donald Trump have employed the term to produce nostalgia among voters. When one hears the expression, he or she often tends to become pessimistic and think back to the Midwest’s glory days of manufacturing, rather than focusing on the positives of the present. People must recognize that the term “Rust Belt” has officially “rusted over.”