Watch CBS News

It's time to retire tired talk about the "Rust Belt"

Latest MoneyWatch headlines
Glass ceilings shattered, and other MoneyWatch headlines 01:03

We don't converse on cellphones the size of bricks anymore, wear slap bracelets or sport big hair.

So why are we still using another relic from the 1980s -- the phrase "Rust Belt" -- to describe a large swath of the U.S.?

The well-worn phrase has staged a resurgence as politicians and journalists dust it off to describe a part of the country that could prove pivotal in the presidential battle between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Searches for "Rust Belt" on Google shot to an all-time high earlier this year as Trump captured the attention of mostly white, working-class voters frustrated with their economic prospects.

It's now conventional wisdom that a sense of hopelessness in the so-called Rust Belt has propelled Trump and his populist promise for a return to America's past industrial glory.

The Rust Belt heats up as a hot travel spot 03:46

Both major political conventions this year are in cities considered part of the Rust Belt -- the Democrats this week in Philadelphia, and the Republicans last week in Cleveland. News outlets in their convention coverage have often invoked the phrase, which suggests an entire region in decline with scant hope for recovery: "Labor Makes Clinton's Case to Rust Belt Whites Curious about Trump," reports Bloomberg; "Donald Trump's Appeal to Rust Belt Workers," notes The New York Times; "Will the Rust Belt ever be great again?" wonders USA Today.

Here's the problem: "Rust Belt" is out-of-date, derisive and simplistic. The lazy narrative of a region in decline, littered with abandoned factories, doesn't reflect the far more nuanced socioeconomic reality in the region, where some cities are thriving and industries from technology and biotech to health care and advanced manufacturing are flourishing.

The use of Rust Belt also lumps together a large geographic area -- including parts of New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin -- with a wide range of economic circumstances and challenges.

"To say that 'Rust Belt' is dated is an understatement," said economist Diane Swonk, a principal at Chicago-based DS Economics, who added that use of the phrase always gets a boost during election season from politicians trying to appeal to swing-state voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, as well as pundits trying to explain voter behavior. "These taglines stick whether they are appropriate or not."

The decline in manufacturing that inspired the phrase began in the 1970s, even after the sector staged a brief resurgence once "Rust Belt" took hold in the 1980s. The term originally referred to the steel and auto industries, and the decline in question was powered mostly by automation that boosted productivity and reduced the need for labor -- and less by globalization, the demon Trump has promised to slay with better trade deals.

Today, Rust Belt is often used as shorthand for a broader malaise that goes beyond manufacturing, Swonk said. It evokes parts of the country that are trapped in the economic past, populated by people who feel left behind. The phrase is sometimes tinged with nostalgia for the era immediately after WWII, a time of unparalleled economic growth in the U.S. It reaches across industries, from steel and autos to shoes, textiles and leather goods -- products that are still made in the U.S. but with far fewer workers.

"It's a pejorative of a specific region of the country, when what we're talking about is a national issue that goes beyond manufacturing," Swonk said.

Trump has suggested tariffs on imports as a way to restore manufacturing jobs, an approach Swonk described as feeding the "fairy tale" that protectionism would repopulate empty American factories.

She noted that Trump's vice presidential pick, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, leads one of the Rust Belt's best-performing states -- a feat accomplished in part because Indiana has embraced free trade and foreign investment, including from automakers like Honda and Subaru. A Trump-inspired trade war would be a big setback for Indiana, Swonk said.

Although the term Rust Belt typically conjures up images of industrial decline, those who use it usually aren't talking about the Northeast, which in the final decades of the last century also saw many manufacturing jobs disappear.

"There's a tendency to define the Rust Belt as a mostly Midwestern phenomenon," said Aaron Renn, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and a contributing editor at its quarterly magazine City Journal. "Most of New England is not much better than Indiana or Ohio or anywhere else. The negative stigma never got applied to New England the way it got applied to the Midwest."

One explanation: Many of the nation's journalists and pundits reside in New York City or Washington, D.C. It's natural to have a more subtle understanding of the place you live, while painting others with a broad brush.

But gaze out the window on the Acela train between Washington, D.C., and Boston, and you can't miss the miles of rusting factories and abandoned warehouses.

"Frankly speaking, most Midwest cities and most Northeast cities have never recovered from deindustrialization and never will recover," Renn said. "They're hitting bottom because there are no jobs left to lose."

Far from rejecting the imagery of a region in decline, young people in the industrial Midwest are embracing the idea of the Rust Belt in hopes of investing it with new meaning, following the lead of the urban revival of Brooklyn, New York, said Richey Piiparinen, director of The Center for Population Dynamics at Cleveland State University.

"We see the Rust Belt as a badge of honor now -- especially for the younger generations," said Piiparinen, who edited an anthology called "Rust Belt Chic." "We didn't grow up in a time where we had everything and lost it. We grew up in a time where everything was already lost and we have to build it up."

Rust Belt Brewing Co., for instance, opened a few years ago in an old train station in Youngstown, Ohio. The founders note the company "was born from the ruins of the U.S. steel industry in the heart of America, where the worker's spirit still thrives. We brew and serve to honor those who work tirelessly in jobs that are the backbone of our country."

Trump has gained traction in part by capitalizing on nostalgia for U.S. manufacturing and by claiming he can do what many economists and business leaders agree is impossible: bring back hundreds of thousands of highly paid manufacturing jobs.

That's like promising a return to family farming on a broad scale, Piiparinen said. It's unrealistic. Cleveland's manufacturing output is near an all-time high, but the increase in automation means factories don't need as many workers, he noted.

These days, one of Cleveland's biggest industries is health care. The renowned Cleveland Clinic has opened hospitals in London and Abu Dhabi, and it continues to make huge investments in its home city. Baltimore is another Rust Belt town with a thriving medical sector, while Pittsburgh boasts burgeoning education and computer science industries.

"It's crazy to think you can recreate the industrial economy -- what's your new competitive advantage?" Piiparinen asked. "We need to get beyond the label."

The upshot for Rust Belt states is that their economies bottomed out first, putting them in position for growth after a rough stretch, Piiparinen said.

Meantime, he sees an economic reckoning on the horizon for the Sun Belt -- a part of the U.S. from California to Florida. Many communities in that region have depended on mass internal migration, with growing populations in communities built from scratch that avoid the legacy costs of replacing old infrastructure and redeveloping existing buildings.

But what happens when the influx of new residents -- including retirees from the Rust Belt -- slows down? Those communities would start facing legacy costs similar to their Northern peers.

At least, if Piiparinen is right, they'll have a regional nickname that plays up the positive.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.