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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.

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.

Bertie Country, home to Windsor, has fallen to $29,110, or about half of what it is for the US as a whole.

“Wrangler kept us motivated. It kept us going,” Bell told GlobalPost’s Solana Pyne. “We had something to look forward to. Whereas now that Wrangler is gone, there ain’t nothing to look forward to. What can we do?”

A mirror image of Bell’s challenges is Fely Curameng, a Filipina peasant-turned-factory boss who rode the US outsourcing wave to a prosperous middle-class lifestyle – at least for a little while.

“I had four factories running, 1,300 workers, all of them sewing clothes for Americans,” she told GlobalPost’s Patrick Winn.

Curameng was so grateful for the new opportunities she named her daughter “Epza,” a nod to the state-run “Economic Processing Zone Authority” that helped build her mini-empire. But her riches were short-lived and as capital moved on to even cheaper locations, Curameng is now struggling, too.

The trend has also hit another former US manufacturing strength: iron and bridgebuilding.

In this project you’ll travel to America’s Pacific Northwest to meet industry veterans like Dean Stoddard who, due to competition from lower-wage workers in China, is today attempting to salvage his dwindling economic prospects.

“I’m still hirable in the sense that I’m a smart guy, I think. I’m a hard worker, but I’m 50,” Stoddard told Pyne. “But (potential employers) look at you and think, well you’re going to drop dead in ten years or something.”

On a small industrial island near Shanghai, former farmer Wang Pei is now doing the same job – and working some of the same projects that Stoddard used to rely on – including the rebuilding of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

Wang's perspective on the trend is practical, and unsympathetic to workers in the United States.

“America should be proud because they saved money by doing (the Bay Bridge) in China,” he told GlobalPost’s Benjamin Carlson and Jonah Kessel.

“Their life quality is much higher than here. They get better welfare and the lowest income there is much higher than here too. It may have caused some people to lose their jobs, but it’s not something we can take into our consideration,” Wang said.

Even the staid and stable law industry isn’t immune to this seismic global shift.

Legal process outsourcing – electronic discovery, document review and grunt-work of the profession – has moved aggressively into India, further strengthening that country’s rapidly growing middle class, which now numbers more than 160 million people.

Take Nitan Jain, who works on the outskirts of New Delhi as an LPO manager. The law business is booming, and Jain has now earned enough to renovate his home and spring for other middle-class luxuries.

“In day to day life, you don't have to think twice about things you want to own – a big LCD, better furniture, all those things,” he told GlobalPost’s Jason Overdorf.

America the Gutted: Lessons learned

So what did we learn over these past 10 months, as we traveled from America’s struggling heartland to these new and bustling economic capitals?

Times are tough, indeed, for many Americans. The hollowing out of the center is altering the lives of millions of people, perhaps inexorably. It is creating severe economic hardships, while threatening the future hopes and dreams of millions in the world's largest economy.

It is also presenting significant revenue problems for US companies, many of which rely upon the spending power of this key consumer group to drive profits and fuel growth.

Moreover, this great economic shift has sparked enormous political and policy challenges for a bitterly-divided government in Washington, DC as both parties fight about what, if anything, can be done to heal this wounded middle – particularly as government debts and deficits rise.

Outside of the US, the trend has undoubtedly helped millions of people pull themselves from poverty, boosting living standards and quality of life in all corners of the world. For millions, it has resulted in profound changes. They are living longer, healthier lives. They are better educated. As they gradually ascend to the middle class, they are in many ways replacing what the United States is losing.

Yet these gains remain tenuous. Working conditions are often poor. Pay is often too low. Government social nets are weak. And job security can be fleeting.

"What can be my future?" one young woman in the slums of Makati, Manila asked GlobalPost's Michael Condon. "I really don't know. I don't have any idea because ... who knows what can be my future?"

Welcome to globalization.

Welcome to America the Gutted.