At my age, when I hear the words “stress test,” they’re normally coming from my very competent physician and friend. I had never known of the term being applied to state and county governments until an Associated Press story with that information hit my desk.

AP conducts this monthly examination using a score from one to 100 as it compiles unemployment, foreclosure and bankruptcy rates. Lower numbers are good; higher are bad. The average across the country is 11.2 with any government entity scoring higher considered “stressed.” F-Y-I: there are 3,141 counties in the U.S.

In some ways, it’s like my doctor’s stress test. Both tests use a number to measure pressures being felt; one on my body; one on the body politic. Higher numbers aren’t good in either case.

The first statistic that jumped out was this: of the 20 worst economically stressed counties in the whole nation, 14 of them are in California. Fourteen of 20! Of the six remaining, three are in Nevada, one each in Arizona and New Mexico, with the only other top 20 badly stressed county in Missouri. All in the far West except one!

The most stressed counties had high concentrations of unemployment in utilities, construction and real estate. Can anyone say “terrible housing market?” If there’s any good news for those states, it’s that all but Arizona rank healthier than a year ago.

So, if those are the worst, where are the 20 least stressed; the places where things are going much better? Well, Nebraska with six counties, North Dakota four, Kansas, Iowa and South Dakota with two each, and Wyoming, Texas, Virginia and Vermont one each.

Interesting. Most stressed: 19 of 20 in the far West. Least stressed, 18 of 20 in the Midwest.

AP didn’t say so but I’d guess, with the least stressed counties being mostly in mid-America, it’s somewhat tied to picking up a lot of the out-migration folks from the East and Northeast. At the same time, the most stressed counties seem to be largely those that were smokin’ with large census gains just a few years ago before things cooled off. Now they’re seeing very high vacant and foreclosed housing numbers in those states that could indicate fallout of a lot of folks who moved West when times were better.

If a score of 11 is sort of the breakpoint, what does it say about Nevada with the worst number: 21.41? Nevada topped all three rated categories of unemployment, foreclosure and bankruptcy.

One unusual bright spot: Osceola County, Florida, had almost as bad a stress number as Nevada a year ago. But, since then, a Harry Potter attraction opened at Universal Orlando and the stress factor dropped into the normal zone. Just that one thing.

This AP survey was done in January. So it’s a snapshot of conditions at that time. The crucial thing to watch in the next several months is if counties with the worst stress numbers go even higher as legislatures begin to cut deeply into state funding going down the food chain. And if Congress ever gets its act together, what will the expected loss of federal dollars do to the upward stress pressures? Eighteen counties in Oregon alone are hanging on by their fingernails to see if federal safety net funding continues, even at a reduced level.

As a region, Northwest states came in about midrange. Not too high; not too low. Our neighborhood has some bright spots in the rated categories even though pockets of high unemployment skewed things a bit higher. Just as the nation’s economic problems began piling up slowly around here, so, too, will improvements lag a bit. And the stress level will recede slowly.

So there you are. A fiscal stress test for the states. And their 3,141 counties. My guess is if you asked your friendly neighborhood county commissioner, his/her stress level is higher, too.

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