Measuring the stress of recession

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Across the country, the recession is hitting home.

From Atlanta, listen to Marian Chamberlain -- 65, jobless and no longer eligible for unemployment: "I will never be able to retire."

From Shakopee, Minn., listen to Bruce Paul, 56, a vintage car mechanic laid off in January and unemployed for the first time since Richard Nixon was president. Today he and his wife spend their days in the public library to reduce energy costs at home. "You go out and they say, you know, you need a resume. And I say, 'A resume? What's that?' "

From Broomfield, Colo., listen to U.S. Marine and construction worker Simon Todt, 27, a combat-arms specialist who returned from three tours in Iraq only to be laid off from his construction job in December. He smiles wanly as he sums up his situation: "There's not a big calling in the civilian world for explosives."

The Associated Press Economic Stress Map is finding these voices and telling their stories.

The interactive Stress Map offers insight into the American recession, using an equation, the Stress Index, that shows -- state by state, county by county -- just how uncertain and battered around we are. It takes the numbers, the pronouncements, the big plans for recovery and illustrates what they mean.

The Stress Index synthesizes three complex sets of evolving data. By factoring in monthly numbers for foreclosure, bankruptcy and unemployment, the AP has assembled a numeral that reflects the comparative pain each American county is feeling.

Here are some examples of what the Stress Index tells us:

- The recession spread like an epidemic, from sequestered pockets of foreclosure to a nationwide explosion as unemployment became the dominant misfortune.

- Places with technology-based economies were recession-proof for a while but aren't now.

- Places with large numbers of government jobs -- state capitals, university towns, communities with concentrations of hospitals -- remain fairly recession-proof. These are places such as Columbia, Mo.; Madison, Wis.; the Raleigh, N.C., area; and Athens, Ga.

- State government is not hurting that much -- at least, not yet.

- The regions we look to for our traditional sources of energy, for our coal and oil -- Wyoming, West Virginia and the like -- have generally not been hit as hard.

- Though bankruptcy declarations are happening everywhere, they tend to be higher in the South because of low wages, state laws that give power to creditors and a culture that's more familiar with the bankruptcy option.

- Among counties with 25,000-plus residents, no place has been hit harder than Elkhart County, Ind., and 15 of the 20 American counties hit hardest by the recession in the past year are in six states -- Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.

The Stress Index is not merely a map of misery, though. Going forward, it can track the recovery as well -- show where it is poking its head up, where it is spreading and whom it is leaving behind.

It can illustrate emerging trends -- why are certain areas starting to recover while others are lagging behind? -- and offer early hints to where the tightness of economic stress might be starting to loosen.

For the immediate future, the AP Economic Stress Map will attempt to do just that. Reporters will be telling regular stories based on the monthly numbers, showing just how the recession is hitting home.

AP'S STRESS INDEX

The Associated Press has determined a Stress Index for every county in the nation, measuring the relative impact of the recession and its recovery by integrating the cumulative effect of three economic indicators: unemployment, foreclosures and bankruptcy.

WHAT THE NUMBER MEANS: The index is a figure between 0 and 100, 100 being the worst. If a county has an Economic Stress score of 20, this means there is a 20 percent chance that a random worker, property owner or taxpayer is suffering at least one of these misfortunes.

ONLINE EXTRA

Click here for an interactive map of the Economic Stress Index

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