The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Political power keeps shifting from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt. Here’s why.

Census data reveals a continuation of a half century long shift driven by deindustrialization and savvy recruitment.

A bridge over Route 680 outside Youngstown, Ohio, in 2019. (Jeff Swensen for The Washington Post)

On April 24, the Census Bureau announced how seats in the U.S. House of Representatives would be reallocated based on recent population data. There were some surprises. Texas gained two seats, and Florida gained one — fewer than predicted for both. California, for the first time, lost a seat. That New York lost a seat and Minnesota did not came down to the razor-thin margin of 89 inhabitants.

And yet, these unexpected results masked a more basic predictability, a geographical divide that has structured American life for over a half-century: Rust Belt vs. Sun Belt. Nearly all the states that lost congressional representation — Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia — hail from the old industrial heartland of the Midwest and the Northeast, while all the states that gained seats — Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina, Oregon and Texas — are in the South and West. For all that has changed in American life during this period, this pattern has proved remarkably durable, as population and resources have consistently flowed southward and westward.

The term Sun Belt was first popularized by GOP strategist Kevin Phillips in his 1969 book “The Emerging Republican Majority” to describe the seismic transformation of the American South and West. Until the mid-20th century, these regions were the nation’s economic backwaters, “colonial” producers of raw materials that lagged far behind the rest of the nation in wealth and income. The South, in particular, remained impoverished, rural and agricultural. In contrast, the crown jewel of the American economy was the constellation of Northern industrial communities that stretched from the Eastern Seaboard through the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River.

In the 1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that the “South was the Nation’s No. 1 Economic Problem” and committed the federal government to ending the region’s age-old underdevelopment. New Deal programs like the Rural Electrification Administration brought power to the countryside, while federal wage policy fostered well-paying manufacturing jobs. The states, too, tried to address these issues. Mississippi launched its Balance Agriculture With Industry program in 1936, a groundbreaking experiment in government-sponsored industrialization.

The real takeoff point, however, came with World War II. The South and the West reaped a wealth of defense spending, becoming home to military bases, munitions plants and other wartime industries. Fearing the destructive capacity of aerial warfare and hoping to uplift depressed areas, federal officials dispersed military installations to less densely populated regions, which had the added benefit of cheap land and warm climates.

This wartime federal investment continued during the Cold War to transform the South and the West into the “Sun Belt.” A new booster class of bankers, retailers, insurance executives, real estate agents, utilities magnates and others took shape, motivated by a desire for military contracts and mobile factories. Sun Belt business leaders formed an alliance with the Pentagon, supporting ever-increasing levels of defense spending in exchange for military largesse.

Boosters simultaneously began to pirate manufacturing plants from Northern industrial centers, using the lures of cheap labor, low taxes, lax regulations and weak unions. Selling themselves as business-friendly, Sun Belt states passed “right-to-work” laws that weakened labor unions’ ability to enroll members. Calling their creation the “business climate,” boosters went to ever-greater lengths to create favorable conditions for capital investment, promising excellent roads, good schools, quality health care, leisure activities and beautified public spaces.

The federal government underwrote this infrastructural modernization by giving Sun Belt state governments the money to resurface highways, construct airports and upgrade utilities. Yet, not all communities benefited equally. Sun Belt spending favored metropolitan boomtowns — Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Oklahoma City and Phoenix — over poor, rural agricultural areas. Sun Belt cities became home not just to traditional manufacturing, but also new high-tech industries such as aerospace and software. North Carolina’s Research Triangle became the South’s answer to Silicon Valley, selling high-tech firms on the abundance of scientific and engineering talent churned out by Duke, the University of North Carolina and North Carolina State.

The Sun Belt’s pilfering of Northern industry flew under the radar throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The prosperity and abundance of the era minimized the pains of these moves. Many firms also masked what they were doing, often closing down a single division and spinning it off into a relocated branch while keeping open the main plant.

In the 1970s, however, as economic growth slowed and stagnation set in, the costs of capital flight became apparent. The manufacturing heartland of the Midwest and the Northeast experienced a massive wave of deindustrialization. Foreign competition, largely from the rebuilt economies of Japan and Western Europe, laid bare the lagging productivity of many U.S. manufacturers. As foreign cars and electronics made inroads into U.S. markets, corporations looked for ways to increase profits and lower costs. Some firms embraced automation, while others escalated their search for cheaper Sun Belt homes. Both choices entailed the loss of large numbers of manufacturing jobs in traditional industrial areas. As plants shut down, oxidation set in, turning once-glistening steel into dull rust, coining the name “Rust Belt” for this decaying civilization.

Cities bore the brunt of the industrial decline. Humans and tax dollars followed capital to the Sun Belt. Once-thriving locales like Detroit and Cleveland experienced population loss, while New York City was driven to the brink of bankruptcy in the mid-1970s. Smaller cities, such as Youngstown, Ohio, were devastated when dominant employers closed up shop. The urban crisis fell hardest on Northern and Midwestern inner cities, which due to decades of segregationist housing policy, were mostly inhabited by people of color. Unemployment, homelessness and crime all increased, while declining tax revenue decimated available social services.

Since the 1990s, reviving Rust Belt urban centers has been a common priority for politicians and civic boosters, who very much resemble their Sun Belt counterparts. Some cities have successfully managed the transition from an industrial to a postindustrial economy. After the decline of its steel sector, Pittsburgh rebuilt its economy around health care. New York City and Chicago largely abandoned their manufacturing pasts in favor of FIRE industries (Finance, Insurance and Real Estate).

Yet, despite the revival of some Rust Belt communities, the ongoing decimation of American manufacturing has continued, something the transfer of congressional seats from the Midwest and the Northeast to the South and the West exposes today.

The U.S. industrial economy of the early 20th century had incredible breadth and depth. Manufacturing not only provided millions of jobs, but it was dispersed across a vast geographic area, sustaining major urban centers, midsize cities and small industrial towns from Massachusetts to Wisconsin.

The service jobs, medical and educational sectors and FIRE industries that now dominate the economy in the region represent a sorry substitute, providing meager wages for workers, shrinking opportunities for the middle class and rich rewards for only a narrow band of professionals. That leaves them incapable of providing the expansive economic stability necessary to hold on to inhabitants or drive population growth. While the Sun Belt has had its own struggles with deindustrialization, it has achieved a much more balanced economy, relying on robust industries that continue to entice people to the region, such as computing technology, retirement, tourism and defense.

Yet, all is not as bright as it might seem in the Sun Belt. The 2020 Census shows that the rate of population growth appears to be slowing. Texas and Florida failed to gain as many seats as expected, and California actually lost one. Perhaps the Rust Belt-Sun Belt divide is diminishing, but we will have to wait another 10 years to find out for sure.