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The American middle class is in distress. Here's what that means to the world's largest economy, and the rest of planet earth.

The American middle class is in decline. But that's not the whole story. (Solana Pyne/GlobalPost)

America the Gutted: a global investigation of the disappearing middle class

The American middle class is in distress. Here's what that means to the world's largest economy, and the rest of planet earth.

BOSTON — There is a deep unease spreading across the United States of America.

As anyone who's living through it can tell you, the nation’s middle class — the backbone of the world's largest economy — is in distress.

Median income and net worth are falling.

Unemployment remains a persistent and pernicious problem.

Millions of houses languish in foreclosure, or drown under mortgages that exceed their market values.

Health care, education and other day-to-day costs continue to rise, further pressuring family budgets.

To make matters worse, new technologies are decimating entire industries, and social safety nets are threatened by rising government debt.

Meanwhile, the ascendance of China, India and other rising powers is challenging America’s leading role in a highly competitive and increasingly interconnected global economy.

In short, America's middle class is being gutted by a variety of complex and interrelated factors, and this economic pain is increasingly evident to those at its ruinous center.

According to an August survey by the Pew Research Center, 85 percent of middle-class Americans believe it is more difficult to maintain their standard of living today than it was 10 years ago.

“The good-paying jobs that underpinned a way of life have been replaced by part-time or minimum-wage jobs,” write Donald L. Bartlett and James B. Steele in their 2012 book The Betrayal of the American Dream. “As steady work disappears more and more people work under contracts, wages go down, and of course some have no work at all,” they add.

This seismic shift is decades in the making and transcends Democratic and Republican parties and politics, despite the efforts of both the Obama and Romney campaigns to turn middle-class pain into political gain.

These declines were greatly exacerbated by the Great Recession of 2008, which shattered the US job and housing markets, a key source of middle class income and wealth.

But regardless of its causes, the implications of this economic shift are profound. They should also be troubling for all Americans.

As this middle hollows out, millions have fewer financial resources for their families, and less spending power to help fuel the consumer-based US economy.

Millions more are losing hope that their country can provide good jobs now or in the future.

And as the socially divisive Occupy Wall Street movement has underscored, many people are questioning the very ideals that constitute America – along the way exacerbating an unhappy divide between the rich, the poor and those in between.

But despite the enormity of America's problems, this is not the whole story.

Over roughly the same period as the middle-class decline in the US, huge numbers in the developing world have enjoyed substantial increases in their standards of living — notably in China and India, as well as in other countries in Asia, Latin America and elsewhere.

While the Great Recession has challenged some of these high-flying economies, the long-term trend is clear: more people around the world are ascending into the middle class, in many cases by doing the jobs once held by Americans.

According to scholar Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution Press, by the year 2030 "5 billion people — nearly two-thirds of the global population — could be middle class."

America the Gutted: A global investigation

How is this complex trend playing out in shuttered factory towns across America?

How is it changing lives — for good and sometimes ill — in the emerging boomtowns of the developing world?

What is the future for the middle class in the US, and for those aspiring to middle-class status around the world?

These thorny questions and more are the focus of a 10-month GlobalPost investigation, America the Gutted.

To put a human face on this macroeconomic phenomenon, we examined three iconic American industries – denim, iron and law – and what’s happening to those workers in the US and around the world.

In each case, we found struggle and hardship in the US, hope and economic progress overseas, and greater uncertainty for almost everyone.

In this project you’ll meet people like Glenda Bell, a devoted garment worker who spent 27 years stitching Wrangler jeans at a once-bustling factory in Windsor, North Carolina.

When in 2003 Wrangler’s parent company VF Corp moved production to Manila, Bell and more than 350 other workers lost their jobs. Today, median household income in