July 8, 2009 by Dave Haynes
In response to the posting on Stratacache’s move to a new building in Dayton, I have to say that one of my fondest wishes is to see the word “rustbelt” retired from the language.
The problem with this shorthand is that it distorts the reality of what has really happened in the U.S. economy over the last 50-60 years. It implies that all economic growth in the USA occurs in the coastal states, and that most of the economic decline occurs in the Midwestern states. Not true.
First of all, the first flush of the “rusting belt” phenomenon started to unfold when the World War II wartime production buildup ended in 1945. Starting then, this rusting of belts occurred in manufacturing cities (in those days, all of our cities were manufacturing cities) that were spread across the USA.
These plant closings were just as likely to happen in what we now call “sunbelt” cities such as Wilmington, North Carolina or Los Angeles as they were to happen in Detroit, Buffalo or Cleveland.
After the first round of plant closings, the regional pattern actually shifted more to the Northeast than to any other region. During this period from about 1947 to 1974, that’s when Northeastern cities like Boston, Providence, Hartford, Bridgeport, New York, Brooklyn, Newark, Syracuse, Buffalo, Philadelphia/Camden, Chester, PA, Wilmington, DE and Baltimore took it on the chin. Many of those cities today — think of Springfield, Mass., North Philadelphia, Wilmington, Newark, all the Connecticut cities, the Capital District of New York State and all of the NYC boroughs except Manhattan — still abound in rust in amounts equal to or greater than to what one would find in some of the growing cities of the Midwest such as Minneapolis/St. Paul, Columbus, Indianapolis and Ann Arbor.
This occurred because certain specific industries that were concentrated in those Northeastern cities declined — such as machine tools in Western Massachusetts, shipbuilding in many Atlantic coast cities, textiles in New England and electrical manufacturing and food-processing throughout the Northeast — shut down or moved South.
Yes, the later wave of plant closings — the one that started accelerating around 1974 led by steel and auto — were concentrated in the Midwest. But, truth be told, in the Gulf Coast region in the Sunbelt and in the Piedmont region of Virginia and the Carolinas, the level of plant closings in the textile, furniture, apparel and shipbuilding industries has equalled anything seen in the so-called rustbelt.
So, what is my point here? My point is that the U.S. economy and American working people have suffered in every region of the USA for many decades because of the decline of basic manufacturing, and the decent-paying jobs that accompany those industries. This is not a regional issue, and that’s why the term “rustbelt” distorts what’s really happening.
As most rational economists will tell you, this a national issue. The sad truth is that during the last 30 years or so, the U.S. economy has not generated enough new jobs that pay well enough to prevent all this rusting.
I look forward to the day (hopefully soon) when new economic policies will encourage the creation of well-paying jobs for working people that will be distributed widely across the U.S. landscape. The current economic meltdown shows us that this stronger economy cannot be built on the recent economic model of debt, a housing sector built on debt, excessive imports, an overgrown finance sector, and a growing health care sector that generates a lot of relatively low-paying jobs and waste while it simultaneously saps the strength of the larger economy.
This is not rocket science. In the USA, we’ve understood in the past how to create jobs and move prosperity around to all of the various regions. We can do it again. In the meantime, let’s retire the word “rustbelt.”
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