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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.

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This former Wrangler factory in Windsor, North Carolina once employed more than 350 people. Today, and under new management, the factory has around a dozen workers. (Travis Long/GlobalPost)
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America the Gutted: North Carolina, America's most gutted state

The Tar Heel State has been the hardest hit by factory outsourcing

WINDSOR, North Carolina — For the better part of three decades, Glenda Bell spent eight hours a day, five days a week bent over a sewing machine.

But Bell doesn’t talk of drudgery when describing her years spent stitching belt loops and leather patches onto Wrangler’s American Hero jeans. Instead, she says her job inside Wrangler’s cavernous 50,000 square-foot factory was the best she ever had.

“I loved my job,” Bell, 57, said, in the modest home her wages helped buy. “It made me who I am.”

A mother of four, Bell notes with pride that she missed just 12 days of work in 26 years on the job. Doing the right thing is important to her. That’s clear whether Bell is describing her decision to adopt twin teenage boys out of foster care, or the work ethic she embraced at the factory.

“At Wrangler, the motto was ‘quality first’,” Bell said. “That’s what made me stay there 26 years. That’s what made me stay there until the plant closed, because I liked that motto.”

Windsor’s factory was among the last Wrangler plants still making jeans in America when it shut down in 2003. Bell was one of hundreds of thousands of workers laid off in the last decade in North Carolina, which has lost more manufacturing jobs per capita than any other state as a stampede of American companies chased cheap labor abroad.

For many of the laborers left behind, a decades-old social contract has crumbled. Hard work can no longer secure them a comfortable spot in the middle class. Instead, those lucky enough to find new jobs struggle to survive on lower wages, often without benefits, and with no promise their paychecks will be there next week. Experts say the challenges now faced by workers like Bell reflect a massive economic shift in American history. The days when blue-collar workers could easily buy homes or send their children to college may be gone.

“It might be that we should think of that beautiful period after World War II and before 1985 as an aberration,” said economist Patrick Conway, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “It was not something sustainable. Now we’re facing something sustainable – but not as good for the work force.”

That’s a profound understatement if Glenda Bell’s post-layoff life is any indication. After the Windsor Wrangler factory closed in 2003, Bell didn’t simply languish on unemployment but, rather, did her best to find better work in a less-beleaguered field. Taking advantage of government retraining support, Bell went back to school and obtained her GED. Then she secured a license as a certified nursing assistant, entering a field expected grow as baby boomers age.

But she says even the best nurse assistant jobs have paid just half what she made at Wrangler. And not one has offered health insurance.

“I don’t know of any person that has a job as good as they had at Wrangler,” Bell said.

That’s a common refrain on the faded streets of Windsor, population 3,630.

Wrangler was “one of the best jobs I have had – and I’ve had a lot of them,” said Natasha Basnight, a 32-year-old pharmacy technician, who worked at the factory in her early 20s. She and her coworker, 62-year-old Peggy Dunlow, both said they’d return in a second if the factory opened back up.

But few believe that will actually happen. The shuttered factories, overgrown parking lots and fading signs dotting the region remind residents that the state’s days as a production powerhouse have passed.

More than a quarter of the state’s workers had jobs in manufacturing in 1990, a larger share than in Michigan or Ohio, according to Federal Reserve data. By 2010, that had declined to about one in ten.

Conway, the Chapel Hill economist, said work in manufacturing has declined across the US in the past two decades, but, he added, “North Carolina is diving much more quickly than any other.”

Much of that work went overseas. Under the Department of Labor’s Trade Adjustment Assistance program, workers who lost jobs due to rising imports or offshoring can get training and income assistance. More workers in North Carolina received that assistance between 1994 and 2010 than any other state, according to