The nation's economic stress inched up in December because higher foreclosures outweighed lower unemployment, according to The Associated Press' monthly analysis.
Bankruptcy levels remained largely unchanged from November. But the depressed housing market took a toll. Foreclosure rates rose in 33 states, most sharply in Utah, New Jersey, Nevada and Arizona.
Most analysts expect the economy to gain momentum this year, in part because of a tax-cut package that lowers workers' Social Security taxes and puts more money in their paychecks. But two straight months of higher stress to end 2010 marked a setback after the nation's economic pain had eased since the start of last year, the AP Economic Stress Index showed.
The AP's index calculates a score from 1 to 100 based on unemployment, foreclosure and bankruptcy rates. A higher score signals more stress. Under a rough rule of thumb, a county is considered stressed when its score exceeds 11.
The average county's score in December was 10.4, up from 10.3 in November. Slightly more than 40 percent of the nation's 3,141 counties were deemed stressed, up slightly from November.
For all of 2010, economic stress eased in every state but five: Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Nevada and Utah. Stress fell most sharply in the Great Lakes states and the Southern states of Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee. Those states have large manufacturing bases, and the AP analysis showed that stress dropped most in counties with large proportions of workers in manufacturing.
U.S. manufacturers are finally adding jobs after years of shrinking their payrolls. They added 136,000 workers last year, the first net increase since 1997. And in January, the manufacturing sector added 49,000 jobs - the most in any month since August 1998.
For 2010, the sharpest increases in economic stress occurred in counties with heavy concentrations of real estate workers.
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