AP analysis: Economic pain failed to ease in July

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Americans' economic struggles persisted in July, largely unchanged from the previous month, according to The Associated Press' monthly analysis of conditions around the country.

Nationally, unemployment, foreclosure and bankruptcy rates didn't budge from June. Yet the economic pain varied among localities, depending on their economic bases. Stress eased in counties whose work forces lean toward areas like agriculture, mining, wholesale trade and finance.

By contrast, counties with many employees in the retail and real estate industries suffered higher distress in July, according to a statistical analysis by AP.

Economic stress declined month to month in July in about 54 percent of the nation's 3,141 counties and in 24 of the 50 states, the AP's Economic Stress Index shows.

The AP's index calculates a score for each county and state from 1 to 100 based on unemployment, foreclosure and bankruptcy rates. A higher score indicates more economic stress. Under a rough rule of thumb, a county is considered stressed when its score exceeds 11.

The AP's index found the average county's Stress score in July was 10.5, unchanged from the previous month. About 42 percent of counties were found to be stressed. That, too, was unchanged from June.

Nevada, with a score of 22.1, was again the most stressed state. Put another way, 1 in 4.5 Nevadans in July was either unemployed, owned a home in some stage of foreclosure or had filed for bankruptcy. Rounding out the top five-most-stressed states were Michigan (17.44), California (16.88), Florida (15.94) and Arizona (15.41).

The healthiest state was North Dakota with a stress score of 4.24. Its score dipped slightly from June, aided by a lower unemployment rate. Next best were South Dakota (5.05), Nebraska (5.92), Vermont (6.29) and Wyoming (7.13).

The national unemployment rate remained the same from June to July, at 9.5 percent. So did the foreclosure rate (one in 62 homes) and the average state's bankruptcy rate (1.2 percent).

On Friday, the government said the unemployment rate for August ticked up to 9.6 percent. Most economists say it will take years for the rate to drop to near 5 percent, where it was when the recession began in late 2007.

"We still haven't seen the job creation out there that is necessary to bring down the unemployment rate," said Sean Snaith, an economist at the University of Central Florida. "That will help ease the foreclosure problem. That will help ease bankruptcies."

Besides unemployment, the economy is being held back by businesses and households still struggling with high debts and lack of confidence in the economy. U.S. economic growth slowed to a tepid annual rate of 1.6 percent in the spring.

Some analysts have raised concerns that the economy might be in danger of stalling. Most private forecasters, however, say they think growth will continue but at sluggish rates.

Sal Guatieri, senior economist at BMO Capital Markets, predicts growth at subpar rates of around 1.5 percent in the second half of this year and 2.5 percent in 2011. That would leave unemployment still painfully high at around 8.9 percent by the end of 2011, he said.

"Consumers are still paying down their debts and rebuilding their savings, and they just don't have the income growth to ramp up spending," Guatieri said.

The July stress figures illustrate the spiraling misfortunes that can start with a job loss, lead to a foreclosure proceeding and then to a bankruptcy filing. States hardest hit by foreclosures - Arizona, California, Florida and Utah - also suffered the biggest month-to-month jump in bankruptcy filings in July.

Previous state-by-state patterns intensified in July: The most economically stressed states became more so. And with one exception (South Dakota), the healthiest states suffered less stress.

Economic stress fell most in the Western states of Alaska (7.96), Colorado (11.07), Montana (7.9) and Wyoming; the Plains states of Nebraska and North Dakota; and the Southeastern states of Alabama (11.73), Louisiana (9.17) and Tennessee (12.33). The main reason for the improvement was seasonal job gains.

The states that endured the sharpest month-over-month increases in stress were Michigan, New Jersey (12.79), California, Connecticut (10.71) and Rhode Island (13.44). These states have struggled with high unemployment and foreclosures.

The most stressed counties with populations of at least 25,000 were concentrated in California and Nevada. Leading the way, as it has for more than a year, was Imperial County, Calif.(34.28), followed by Yuma County, Ariz. (30.6); Lyon County, Nev. (26.89); Nye County, Nev. (25.66); and Merced County, Calif. (25).

The least-stressed were Ward County, N.D. (3.16), followed by Burleigh County, N.D.(3.68); Brown County, S.D.(3.9); Buffalo County, Neb.(4.16); and Ford County, Kan. (4.47).

Economic conditions likely will stay static until after the November elections. Then, the stock market may respond positively to the results and kick-start the economy, Snaith said.

"That will alleviate some of the stress that consumers are under in terms of the wealth that has been lost in the housing market and stock market," Snaith said. "The biggest problem in the economy is that there is so much uncertainty."


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