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Economy

Can the Great Lakes Shake Off the Rust?

The decline of manufacturing in the Rust Belt is more recent than we think, and jobs are slowly returning. But the region desperately needs a youth revival to balance national population trends.
Vehicles drive through downtown Flint, Michigan, the original home of General Motors, on Jan. 21, 2016.
Vehicles drive through downtown Flint, Michigan, the original home of General Motors, on Jan. 21, 2016. Paul Sancya/AP

“Rust Belt” has proved to be an exceptionally useful moniker for the narrative of industrial decline in Middle America. It provides a symbol for the long decay of productivity and power in the region since the 1970s. But rust isn’t the whole story: The disappearance of manufacturing jobs isn’t quite the same as inevitable, unfixable corrosion. Those jobs can come back.

That’s the glimmer of hope that steely-eyed Rust Belters should take out of a new report from the Urban Institute. The report takes a look back at industry and labor statistics for the states that surround the Great Lakes—Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin—and makes economic, demographic, and social projections for how those trends will play out through to 2040. Overall, the report conveys the impression that it’s possible to fix up the region’s sputtering economic engine.

One key starting point: That manufacturing decline started more recently than we think—in 1999. “The big surprise for me looking back was how severe the manufacturing loss was between 2000 and 2010,” says Rolf Pendall, one of the report’s authors. “The narrative that I always understood wrongly about the Great Lakes was that there's been this steady loss of manufacturing jobs pretty much since the 1970s. I thought that people may be nostalgic for something that really wasn’t there.”