Since 1970: From Rust Belt to Heartland

ADM soybean mill, Decatur, Illinois, April 2007
ADM soybean mill, Decatur, Illinois, April 2007Higbie, Tobias
City of Industry, Hamilton, Ontario, 2007
City of Industry, Hamilton, Ontario, 2007Walsh, Chris P.

>By the 1970s, North American industries began to face real competition from Europe and Asia for the first time in nearly half a century. Sharp spikes oil prices, slow growth and high inflation further undermined the region.  Less tangible but potentially more damaging was the shock of high interest rates during the 1980s that sapped profits and lured investment dollars away from manufacturing and into finance and real estate.

In a relatively short time, thousands of plants closed, depriving workers and communities of hundreds of thousands of jobs. The number of workers in the U.S. steel industry, for instance, dropped by half in the decade after 1973. Other industries like meatpacking relocated to rural areas, undermining the tax base of large cities. Canada weathered this transition better than the U.S. Influenced by economic nationalism, the Canadian government took steps to maintain its steel industry, and negotiated provisions in trade deals that maintained, and in some cases expanded, industrial work for Canadians. But the overall decline in manufacturing in North America stung both societies, and the region became known as the Rust Belt.

Seeking a more positive identity, many in the American Midwest, and to a lesser extent Canadians, embraced the idea that they lived in the Heartland. As the sentimental center of a nation’s culture, the idea of the Heartland idealizes central North America’s rural and small-town past even as it downplays or ignores the cultural, political, and commercial dynamism that has characterized the region for centuries.  At the same time new immigrants from Latin America, Asia, and Eastern Europe arrived to work in newly expanding retail, high technology, and construction industries.