By Randall Smith
Recently, I was asked a question that struck me very deeply, “Will the Rustbelt ever come back?”. I didn’t find any concrete, real-time answers but did find some interesting and hopeful facts and possibilities.
Let’s start by defining the Rustbelt or “Rust Bowl”, most take it to mean the industrial cities of the Mid-western States. That definition is too narrow, as the industrial decline, that started with a recession in 1979-82 travels East at least as far as Delaware Bay ( say, Chester Pa.) North to the Great Lakes, and could be argued goes across the Canadian Border, West at least to the western Borders of Iowa and Missouri, with significant decline as far as Tennessee and, the Carolinas where the textile industry was particularly hard hit.
Under that definition, having that percentage of a Nation in a chronically economically depressed condition, for over 30 years is a significant event, and at present there’s no end in sight. Most of us have some idea of the decline and suffering of cities like Detroit, or in the Pittsburgh Pa. area, but many tend to disregard the fact, that many smaller towns and cities across the region have many, if not all the same issues. The major cities in decline in the area were manufacturing hubs, for every Detroit, Gary or Youngstown, are about 100 towns and cities that made sub-assemblies, and parts for them, or if they had independent industries, they cut-back or closed due to Overseas competition, regional decline, or both. That adds up to many more towns and cities.
Let’s also separate the phrases “Rustbelt” and “Rust-Bowl”, the Rustbelt is the region, and the dominant industry was steel products. The “Rust-Bowl”, was an exodus out of the Mid-West core of the area, to the South and South-West. The phrase was inspired, by the exodus out of the central southern States in the 1930s due to Environmental and Soil conditions. Those conditions improved by the late 30's and many People came back. Many have also returned to the Industrial Mid-West, however conditions have not improved, this exodus largely ended in the mid 1980s, it continues to a very limited degree, most returning finding the prospects aren’t, now, really, any better in those locations either.
To answer the question “Will the area come back?” is complex, and contains several “ifs”.
Steel being the dominant industry in the area, it is a central issue in that question’s answer. As for today, a short answer would be in two parts, one: Not as it was, nor should it. And, two: not without significant planning and investment. This answer has an added irony, in that, in all the World, the raw-materials that make steel are in some of their greatest abundance a fairly equal, and economical shipping distance from the effected communities. It could be argued, that between the savings in mode of shipment, rail and water being many times more economical than Road-way, and the abundance of raw materials close at hand (in a Global sense, Very close), coupled with being also close, if not directly at, one of the Worlds largest markets for steel products, dictates that at some point it will. The simple availability of the resources involved, indicates that at some point it must.
One of the points made since the decline began by the managerial and financial sectors involved in the area’s Industry, has been the cost of Labor, particularly Organized Labor. Many of us who live in the effected area have come to the conclusion that the availability and abundance of resources, economy of transportation, and further economy in that regard to being directly close to a very large market, would render the cost of Labor, a small issue indeed.
In fact, Labor costs seem to be a central issue in excuses and debates about the issue, to the point of exclusion of discussion of these other factors. If we are to offer any viable future to our Young People, possess a strong economy, and ease many of the social and economical problems the people of our nation face as a whole, the answers are in the “Rustbelt”. Just as it is said that a high tide lifts all Boats.