The ‘Rust Belt’ Echoes American Loss, But It’s No Cliché

Voices from the Rust Belt, ed. Anne Trubeck, Belt Publishing, 256 pages.

They call the wide expanse from the Northeast to the Upper Midwest the Rust Belt. The region’s geographical lines, subject to perpetual debate, include cities and towns built by the natural resources that fueled America’s industrial revolution. Their population centers, far from their peak, sit atop Appalachian plateaus, straddle sleepy rivers, and command turbulent lakes.

The Rust Belt largely owes its ambiguous designation to Walter Mondale. During the 1984 presidential campaign, the Democratic candidate railed against Ronald Reagan’s trade position in a speech to steelworkers in Cleveland. The president had lifted quotas on steel imports, which negatively impacted an already imperiled industry. “Reagan’s policies are turning our industrial Midwest into a rust bowl,” declared Mondale.

Mondale’s reference transformed into “Rust Belt,” a term the press has since bestowed on the Northern and Midwestern regions of the country experiencing the maladies of a post-industrial economy. There is no field guidebook dictating what qualifies as the Rust Belt. From Lawrence, Mass. and Trenton, N.J. in the Northeast to Flint, Mich. and Dayton, Ohio in the Midwest, reporters have filed stories that typically chronicle the anguish of these once prosperous cities. Deployments into heartland communities almost always follow a storyline of decline and despair. The subjects profiled for these pieces are found in the daytime bars, fast food lines, and the least desirable neighborhoods of communities created and destroyed by coal or steel. Dispatches from this American safari only intensified when reporters and pundits probed how the “unthinkable” occurred on election night in November 2016.

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A new anthology, Voices From the Rust Belt, takes a different approach. The book owes its publication to Donald Trump’s victory, but editor Anne Trubek, founder of Belt Publishing and Belt magazine, has curated an anthology that challenges the narrative common in post-election media portrayals. In Voices, Trubek has provided a civil platform for various writers to celebrate, lament, reminisce, and report their experiences in cities like Buffalo, Cleveland, Akron, and Detroit.

Trubek calls for us to “resist the urge to make of this place a static, incomplete cliché, a talking point, or a polling data set.” “We have created not only income inequality but also narrative inequality in this nation: some stories are told over and over while others are passed over, muted,” she writes. This book is an important compendium to understanding the Rust Belt experience, one that offers an authenticity often lacking in what amount to anthropological hit pieces.

The book’s essays confront the themes driving modern political disillusionment. There are stories involving poverty, violence, corruption, racial tension, gentrification, heroin, and environmental devastation. The writers recount their observations from communities broken by technological advances, globalization, and unfettered free trade.

There was a period in America when Rust Belt cities accelerated America’s economic supremacy. They thrived during the nation’s “special century,” coined by economist Robert Gordon to describe a period of unrivaled ingenuity and economic growth between 1870 and 1970. In The Rise and Fall of American Growth, Gordon has argued that the period after the Civil War, through the Gilded Age and World Wars, and up until Nixon’s first term comprised a unique revolution: “No other era in human history…combined so many elements in which the standard of living increased as quickly and in which the human condition was transformed so completely.”

Rust Belt cities catapulted this transformation. But they now suffer the consequences of an economy that has experienced the weakest expansion in the post-World War II period. For these cities, stagnation translates into relocation for better opportunities or an improved quality of life. In Voices, G.M. Donley, a resident of Ohio’s Cleveland Heights, writes that the Rust Belt “has proven to be an ideal laboratory for exploring the practical problems associated with a society habituated to easy mobility, specifically what results when mobility outruns population growth.” In struggling cities, the number of abandoned properties increase as people “filter” out of undesirable housing. A city’s overall property values, meanwhile, decrease when an oversupplied market outpaces regional demand. In addition to a housing oversupply, Donley writes that the flight to a “Better Place” results in abandoned retail space, an overburdened tax base, persistent segregation, and the use of better schools as real-estate marketing. 

In another essay, TAC contributor Jason Segedy poignantly reminiscences about his hometown of Akron in the 1970s and 1980s. Segedy’s childhood marked the twilight of the city’s dominant tire industry. In 1982, Akron built its last passenger-car tire, and 90 percent of the industry’s jobs disappeared within two years. The rubber sector’s collapse marked the end of an era, one that heralded strikes, layoffs, and mass unemployment. Segedy recalls that the period was “followed by its echoes and repercussions—economic dislocation, outmigration, poverty, and abandonment—as well as the more intangible psychological detritus: the pains from the phantom limb long after the amputation, the vertiginous sensation of watching someone (or something) die.” “When the mythology of your hometown no longer stands up to scrutiny,” writes Segedy, “it can be jarring and disorienting. It can even be heartbreaking.”

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Heartbreak is a theme that links together various parts of the Rust Belt. Generations of people who grew up in the region’s cities vividly remember the sights and sounds of industry and commerce. Their childhoods were spent in well-kept rowhomes, apartments, duplexes, and bungalows. Their neighborhoods, often ethnically divided, were within walking distance of a church and perhaps a short drive to the factory or mill. Their grandparents or great-grandparents had arrived in these neighborhoods a century before. The ancestors’ settlement didn’t mark the attainment of some lofty American Dream. Instead, they humbly sought survival in the nation’s growing mass-production economy. In the early 20th century, they were assimilated by industries and the labor movement. Many ultimately improved their family’s position within America’s economic bracket. 

Generations of the Rust Belt’s young men disproportionately served in combat. When they returned, they either worked in the factories or earned a college degree through the G.I. Bill. College graduates typically came back as accountants, attorneys, bankers, and businessmen. If they sought opportunities elsewhere, they maintained strong familial ties to their hometown. The typical Rust Belt city, while lacking the vitality enjoyed between the World Wars, remained stable and a favorable place to raise families. But municipal government corruption, accompanied by policy failures at the state and federal level, gradually eroded many cities—particularly their economic, civic, and cultural infrastructure. From the 1950s through the 1970s, interstate highways sliced urban grids and redevelopment projects erased residential neighborhoods. Suburban malls proliferated, extinguishing the neon signs of downtown businesses. Theaters shuttered, churches closed, and neighborhood schools were consolidated into bloated school districts. And then the factories, mines, and mills closed.

The 1980s and 1990s marked an era of sustained decline. An interconnected economy created billions of new consumers worldwide—but devastated the Rust Belt’s cities. Technological advances made outsourcing possible, and the factories subsequently closed. Distribution centers sprouted from the factory dust, supporting working-class families on lower wages. Immigration policies, frozen in 1965, resulted in new migration into affordable urban neighborhoods. Cities, burdened with a declining tax base, were often ill-prepared to absorb this rapid demographic change. An urban cycle of life and death, one which began in New York City after World War II, continued westward into the Rust Belt. While large metro areas have since enjoyed salvation, the Rust Belt’s interior cities remain in purgatory. 

But the Rust Belt isn’t limited to declining post-industrial cities, making the region far more complex than what is presented in media portrayals. In an essay on Detroit’s suburbs, James D. Griffioen observes that, “One of the reasons metro Detroiters get so upset when journalists and photographers represent Detroit as a city of ruins is the reality that there are millions of people living in safe, well-kept neighborhoods in dozens of prosperous suburban communities.” The Rust Belt’s thriving communities outside cities like Detroit are overlooked in favor of snapshots depicting dilapidated homes, used syringes in city parks, and the ruined majesty of shuttered factories. And yet millions of middle-class families live in affluent suburban hamlets often minutes from these urban areas. It is their story that is frequently ignored.

They’re from families who started in urban neighborhoods. Their households are headed by baby boomers who grew up when the city enjoyed a happier existence, one that was rough yet safe and content—a city with vice but less violence.

The baby boomers were commonly the first in their families to attend college, relocating to suburban neighborhoods of 1990s-era homes with those ubiquitous arches and big windows. They earned six-figure salaries and worked in local law or accounting firms. Their millennial children attended highly-ranked public or parochial schools, played in youth sports leagues, and had an overall comfortable upbringing.

The baby boomers’ elderly parents, meanwhile, usually remained in the old neighborhood, living in a multi-generational homestead and supported by a healthy pension. The neighborhood slowly witnessed demographic change. The old family home needed frequent repairs, but the baby boomer children were there to pay for upkeep or look after their parents. When the parents’ health declined or when the neighborhood grew unsafe, the baby boomers placed them in overpriced nursing homes and commenced their gradual path to financial insecurity.

Then the Great Recession hit around 2007, just in time for boomers to see their parents pass away and children matriculate into college. The urban family homestead sat on the market for years, its value plummeting in a neighborhood overwhelmed by decline. While the city’s downtown may have experienced somewhat of a renaissance, the residential neighborhoods were overwhelmed by blight and crime. When the house finally sold, the baby boomers pocketed under $50,000, leaving little after paying nursing home bills. They also supported their millennial children with college tuition, taking out loans to subsidize bills that exceeded $50,000 each year. This yearly tithe to an increasingly bureaucratic higher-education system paralleled the recession wiping out the value of 401(k)s and Individual Retirement Accounts. 

When the millennial children of the boomers graduated, they returned home seeking employment. They came home to an economy that offered underemployment, temp jobs, and internships. They found themselves meeting metrics in offices designed with open-desk plans, grossly underpaid and immersed in the tenets of corporate social responsibility. They faced a future far different from those who entered the workforce in the 1980s.

Their aging parents, meanwhile, confronted a world they didn’t expect in the 1990s. In 2018, they remain burdened with debt and their prospects for retirement remain far away. As a result of the Affordable Care Act’s passage in 2009, their health insurance premiums have skyrocketed with fewer options for medical care. The Obama-era legislation accelerated the consolidation of healthcare systems, which swallowed smaller regional hospitals. This, in turn, hurt the local attorneys or accountants when the new behemoths went in house for legal work and accounting.

This story could serve as the plot for a modern sequel to American Beauty. But it is the true story of the Rust Belt, which also exemplifies what is occurring in Middle America.

The economic instability corroding the middle class hastened a political response. Middle-class families in the Rust Belt resented how the media reported their frustrations. This assured Trump’s victory in 2016, and it is why Rust Belt voters continue to support him. These middle-class voters, disillusioned by the Bush years, supported Obama in 2008 and even 2012. The swing of Obama voters to Trump played a pivotal role in the presidential election. As the New York Times recently reported, about a third of the 650 counties that supported Obama twice flipped to Trump. Many of these counties were in Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. They were comprised of families who were impacted by the policy failures of the past three decades.

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Although Trump was elected president, the Rust Belt’s disillusionment will only continue. Voters, regardless of party affiliation, are still digesting the consequences of globalization, technological change, and ineffective immigration policies. Although inheritors in the belief of the New Deal, they reject central tenets held by both Democrats and Republicans. They witness America’s income inequality, understanding that adjusted middle-class wages have remained frozen for nearly forty years. They’re also cognizant of the nation’s crisis of wealth, or the alarming gap between a household’s total assets minus debts. In a recent paper, academics Christina Gibson-Davis and Christine Percheski studied this phenomenon. Writing for the Times, Gibson-Davis and Perheski found that about a third of families with children in 2013 had only debt and no wealth. This partially explains a United Way report finding that over 40 percent of U.S. households cannot pay for today’s middle-class basics like childcare and cell phones, while reminding us that positive economic numbers overshadow unsettling trends.

Voices from the Rust Belt manages to tell the Rust Belt’s complicated socio-economic story in a comprehensive way, through writers actually living in the region. As Jacqueline Marino from Youngstown, Ohio, explains, hometowns “are the places where we learn to feel love and hate and the spectrum of other meaningful emotions.” The Rust Belt’s many communities, grasping for life or enjoying a revival, deserve further study along the lines of this necessary manual. For too many years, America’s elected and unelected elite suffered from what Charles Dickens called “telescopic philanthropy,” or the habit of focusing on global causes and neglecting the struggles within their own country.

The Rust Belt deserves continued reporting, but in a style that appreciates its pain, struggles, and complexity. Trubek’s Voices offer a helpful primer as reporters continue their safaris into the heartland. 

Charles F. McElwee III is a writer based in northeastern Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter at @CFMcElwee.

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