"Rustbelt"

Encyclopedia of Sociology. Edited by George Ritzer. NYC. Blackwell. In press


A rustbelt city is one that experiences population loss, rising crime rates, loss of union jobs, particularly in manufacturing, white flight to the suburbs, and a generally declining urban environment. Cities like Gary, Indiana, Detroit, Michigan, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin saw a steady stream of manufacturing jobs leave to lower-wage regions of the country, Mexico, and overseas. Massive, but abandoned factories rusted away and scarred the landscape of once vibrant cities.

The rustbelt was contrasted in the 1970s to the rise of the “sunbelt,” or cities in the south and southwest characterized by high rates of immigration, low wages, retirement communities, and new defense, oil, and high tech industries. The sunbelt also corresponded with the rise to power of the Republican Party in the 1980s, as electoral votes shifted to the south and southwest states adding political to economic advantage.

Theoretically, the term rustbelt is associated with some of the major trends of thought in urban sociology. While popular thinking saw the rusting of the industrial centers and the rapid growth of the southwest as a natural process, some social scientists disagreed. David Perry and Alfred Watkins (1977) posited the rustbelt-sunbelt dyad as one outcome of uneven capitalist development. Rejecting “convergence” theories that saw such processes as an inevitable consequence of the “invisible hand,” these urban political economists attributed the decline of the rustbelt to conscious decisions by political and economic actors.

The crisis of the rustbelt was seen as a crisis of the state, and particularly its redistributive policies. Sunbelt cities were dominated by private capital while the rustbelt poor were dependent on public works or welfare. As the political spectrum swung to the right during the Reagan years, budget cuts further undermined the income and well-being of workers, the unemployed, and the “underclass” in rustbelt cities. Investment in aerospace and other defense industries and later the information economy, enriched the sunbelt as the rustbelt declined.

William Julius Wilson (1987) looked more closely at the social consequences of the deindustrialization for the “truly disadvantaged,” or Black urban poor. In the 1970s and 1980s, Chicago was a prime example of a rustbelt city with a corresponding growth in African American concentrated poverty. Chicago also saw sharp population losses, increases in rates of single parent families, high unemployment, a persistent violent gang problem, and an overall decay in African American social institutions.

While Wilson (1979) had earlier pointed to the “declining significance of race”, the rustbelt led to work disappearing precisely in those cities, like Chicago, that African Americans had concentrated in order to get high wage manufacturing jobs. Thus the “spatial mismatch” of jobs and workers made rustbelt cities’ African American population the “truly disadvantaged.” No other ethnic group, Wilson and Sampson (1995), Doug Massey (1990) and others pointed out, suffered from such high rates of concentrated poverty.

In recent years, the rustbelt concept has diffused internationally. For example, China describes its northeastern provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning as their “rustbelt.” Saskia Sassen, Manuel Castells and other urban sociologists have subsumed the rustbelt concept into explanations of various processes of globalization and the new economy. In Sassen’s terms, some cities and regions are “valorized” in the global era, while others are marginalized. The strength of former industrial cities, like Manchester, Mumbai, or Detroit, turns into a disadvantage as cities seek to become major players in the information economy.

Some US cities appear to have rebounded from rustbelt to information city status. Pittsburgh, for example, has shed its dependence on steel to become a center of software and finance. Boston’s maze of universities and electronics industry provided it with an entrée into the new economy as it shed its textile and other light industry past.


Figure 1.1 Allis-Chalmers in Milwaukee closes. Source: People & Folks: Gangs, Crime and the Underclass in a Rustbelt City. Chicago. Lake View Press 1998


Other cities failed to find a niche in the information era, and have stagnated. Detroit saw its auto industry relocate and has continued to experience major population loss, including nearly all of its white residents. Gary’s steel mills lie darkened in a row on the banks of Lake Michigan, interrupted only by the bright lights of Harrah’s gambling casino. Rustbelt cities have looked to gambling, tourism, and entertainment venues to try to provide jobs and keep their more affluent population from leaving. When old factories are not torn down, some were refurbished as shopping malls. Rustbelt cities today continue to lose population and have high rates of urban violence.

The term rustbelt is used less in the 21st century, as cities look to define themselves more in terms of the new economy than to be held captive to 19th and 20th century labels. Research, like the reputation of cities, has moved from looking at the nature of urban transitions from the industrial era, to the challenges of confronting the inequalities of the new global order.

Cross ReferencesReferences and Suggested Readings


Castells, M. (1989). The Information City: Information Technology, Economic Restructuring, and the Urban-Regional Process. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
Massey, D.S. (1990) "American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass."American Journal of Sociology 96:329-357.
Perry, D.C., and A.J. Watkins, (eds). (1977) The Rise of the Sunbelt Cities, vol. 14. Beverly Hills: Sage.
Sassen, S. (1991) The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Wilson, W.J. (1978) The Declining Significance of Race. Chicago: University of Chicago.
(1987) The Truly Disadvantaged. Chicago: University of Chicago.
(1996) When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Wilson, W. J., and R.J. Sampson (1995) "Toward a Theory of Race, Crime, and Urban Inequality." In Crime and Inequality, (ed) John Hagan, and Ruth D. Peterson. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press..