Photographer: Mark Makela/Getty Images

Life in the Rust Belt Doesn’t Pay If You’re Old

The economic suffering of a key Trump demographic has been stark.

The Rust Belt’s transformation into the Trump Belt was a central element of the real estate magnate’s electoral victory. The economic component is well known: A recovery that followed the subprime collapse during President George W. Bush’s second term left the former industrial heartland behind. Once reliable Democratic supporters began turning away from a party that was seen, rightfully or not, as less responsive to their needs.

But just how bad things have become in four swing states Donald Trump won (though recount efforts are underway in three of them) is now much clearer. This is thanks to research illustrating the extent to which the crucial demographic of older workers in the now-red states of Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin is suffering.  1

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The 2016 presidential election map breakdown.

The broad trend in wages for older workers outside the Rust Belt doesn’t look bad. When you measure the level of pay in election years, you see a long upward trend in inflation-adjusted median wages since the early 1990s.

But separate out those four states and you see that pay for men who are between 55 and 64 in the Midwest has been stagnant and remains below its 1979 level, said economist and author Teresa Ghilarducci in “Since Reagan, Older Workers in Rust-Belt States Flipped from Economic Winners to Losers.” 


Before the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, wages in the four states beat the median for the rest of the country. Older workers there earned $3,600 more than peers elsewhere. But by 2015, they were making $4,000 less than the average.

While the rest of the nation saw median real wages for older workers rise by 17 percent between 1979 and 2015, the figure was just 1 percent in those four states, according to Ghilarducci’s data. For women, the trend even headed downward in recent years. 

The picture for women is bad nationally, too. Across America, older workers in low-wage jobs tend to be female (a low-wage job pays about $540 a week, or two-thirds the median wage). Overall, there’s a higher percentage of older men working than women, but women are the majority in seven of the top 10 low-wage jobs held by people over age 55, said Ghilarducci. 

The rate of growth in weekly wages 2 by gender showed a stark difference between 1995 and 2005. Inflation-adjusted weekly earnings for men and women between the ages of 55 and 64 rose by 7.1 percent and 23.7 percent, respectively. But from 2005 to 2015, the increase narrowed, albeit in the wrong direction, with just a 2.5 percent rise for men and a 1.1 percent increase for women. 


And just in case you were trying to remember some good economic news from last week, Ghilarducci said forget it because it’s misleading. The news was that unemployment for workers 55 and older who actively sought jobs over the past month was only 3.5 percent.

“National statistics hide the realities of the labor market for older workers,” she explained. “We see senior citizens in low-paying service jobs all the time, but we want to believe they are there for the love of the job rather than the need for food or rent.”

By her calculation, the real unemployment rate for older Americans is more like 10 or 11 percent. She uses a broad unemployment measure that adds in people who looked for work in the past 12 months or who were part-timers but wanted to be full-timers 3 . Then she includes those who would like a job but stopped looking more than a year ago.

Stagnant wages make it tough to save for retirement, said Ghilarducci, who heads up the Retirement Equity Lab at the The New School’s Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis. She also recently co-authored Rescuing Retirement: A Plan to Guarantee Retirement Security for All Americans. As a 55-plus worker herself, Ghilarducci said she’s in a good position thanks to her job as a tenured professor and a history of smart saving. But she’s far from sanguine about the costs that can hobble people in later life.

About 16 years ago, she decided to focus on getting into good physical shape, calling it “a pure money play” about what “I hope to save if I can avoid illnesses such as diabetes and osteoporosis.” Unlike the economy, Ghilarducci reasoned, that’s somewhere where we have much more control.

  1. While one thing America learned about polls in this election is how sketchy they can be, CNN exit polling showed voters between the ages of 50 and 64 in Rust Belt states voting for Trump.

  2. Ghilarducci said the slow rate of growth in weekly wages was not a result of fewer hours worked.

  3. That’s the unemployment rate referred to as U-6; she calls her calculation U-7.

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