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The Heartland, Economy

manufacturing belt, automotive transmissions, fabricated metals, service industry jobs, drainage basins

The Heartland has a varied economy that underwent a major transformation late in the 20th century. The region possesses the largest area of highly productive farmland in North America. Industry also plays a major role in the region.

For more than a century, the Heartland supported a thriving center of manufacturing. Since the 1970s, manufacturing has declined. By the end of the 20th century, the economic sector generating the most revenue was the service sector, including commerce and trade. Despite the increase in service industry jobs, the Heartland remains the agricultural and industrial center of the nation.

Both industry and agriculture benefit from an extensive waterway system that includes the Great Lakes and the drainage basins of the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio rivers. Navigation is improved by hundreds of canals, locks, and dams, which also improve flood control and generate hydroelectricity. Water transportation moves millions of tons of iron ore and coal to steel mills and other heavy industries. In addition, the relatively level terrain has facilitated construction of a dense network of highways and railroads.

Agriculture continues to be a major economic force in the region. Rich, deep soils and plentiful rain, complemented by a sunny, hot growing season, give rise to vast and productive croplands specializing in corn, soybeans, alfalfa, hay, and fruits such as apples and cherries. The livestock industry is widespread in the region, with huge feedlot operations supporting cattle production in the west. Hogs, found mainly in Iowa and Illinois, are raised with corn and soybeans. Dairy cattle are found throughout the northern part of the region, particularly in the southern Wisconsin Dairy Belt, famous for its milk, cheese, and butter production.

For more than a century, the U.S. manufacturing belt—including Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, western Pennsylvania, western New York, southern Michigan, and southern Wisconsin—served as one of the great industrial areas of the world. By 1980 the region’s industrial dominance began to wane, challenged by vigorous industrial growth in the South and West and by the decline of manufacturing in favor of service industries. In the last three decades of the 20th century, the region’s share of North American factory production declined significantly.

Although industrial jobs have been leaving the Heartland, the region's industrial districts are still important. Today, auto assembly is important in Cleveland, Ohio. Tire and rubber manufacturing continue in Akron, Ohio. The automobile industry is important in southern Michigan, particularly in Detroit, Flint, Pontiac, Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and Lansing, as well as in Toledo, Ohio.

Centers of heavy manufacturing include Chicago, Illinois; Gary, Indiana; and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The steel industry is still important in the Chicago-Gary region, though much business was lost to competition from Asian steel producers during the closing decades of the 20th century. Indiana and Ohio have diversified industry with factories producing secondary automotive products such as batteries, radios, and automotive transmissions. The middle Ohio River, an 800-km (500-mi) stretch of the Ohio River valley, has been a major center of heavy manufacturing, benefiting from large supplies of industrial coal from western Pennsylvania and West Virginia and from low cost river transportation. Examples of heavy manufacturing in this area include iron and steel, metal products, and fabricated metals and machinery, such as motor vehicle manufacturing and assembly.

In the western section of the Heartland, St. Louis, Missouri, located at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, is a center of diversified industry, with an emphasis on aircraft manufacturing and automotive assembly. The western Heartland also includes major food processing industries in cities such as Des Moines, Iowa; Omaha, Nebraska; Kansas City, Missouri; Council Bluffs, Iowa; and Lincoln, Nebraska.

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