(MoneyWatch) It wasn't that long ago when consumers appeared to be down for the count, defaulting on their mortgages, filing bankruptcy in droves, relying on the government for unemployment checks and suffering with steadily declining net worth. Now, for the first time in nearly four years, the bulk of the nation is fighting its way back to health, according to CredAbility's Consumer Distress Index.
Consumer net worth has ticked up; late payments on mortgages have hit a three-year low and the U.S. savings rate is climbing, according to the index. That's brought the index score to 71.3 in 2012's second quarter - up a compelling 4.6 points over the past year.
Recovery is uneven, however, with residents of some states and cities faring considerably better than others. Residents of Boston and Washington, D.C., are in the best shape, while residents in Detroit and several parts of Florida and California remain economically distressed, according to the index compiled by CredAbility, a credit counseling and education service.
And despite the improvement, this is far from a rosy report.
Scores below 70 are a sign of financial distress, according to CredAbility. The current rate would barely make a "C" grade in school and still indicates that economic health is tenuous. However, it's a major step forward from the distressing state of economic health three years ago, when virtually no state was spared.
The Consumer Distress Index, which provides state rankings back to 1980 and city rankings to 1990, gives each area a score from zero to 100, with rankings of 90-100 indicating complete security; rankings from 80 to 90 indicating good stability; while rankings of 70 to 79 indicate weak health. Rankings of 60-69 are a sign of distress, and CredAbility considers anything below that to be a state of economic emergency.
To come up with these scores, CredAbility looks at five broad categories, including government data on unemployment and under-employment, mortgage delinquencies, credit scores and use of credit, savings rates and consumer net worth. Each area generates its own score and, unsurprisingly, the employment figures remain the weakest measure in the index, with nearly every segment of the country suffering some level of employment distress.
Housing and credit scores have soared, however, with far fewer consumers falling into default and delinquency.
Notably, where most of the country was in good/stable condition in 1990, the bulk of the U.S. states are in a tenuous position now. The states currently faring the best are the relatively thinly populated north - North Dakota; South Dakota, Nebraska and Wyoming.
The South and West remain distressed. According to the index, with high unemployment rates and continued housing and net worth issues keep 14 states, including California, Nevada, Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan, Rhode Island, North and South Carolina in "distressed/unstable" condition. That said, the vast majority of the country has made such great strides with credit that the national credit score has jumped to 86.7% -- just a hair shy of excellent.
The cities with the best and worst scores, according to the Consumer Distress Index?
Best (Big Cities):
1. Boston/Cambridge: 77.42
2. Washington/Arlington/Alexandria: 77.14
3. Minneapolis/St. Paul/Bloomington: 76.97
4. Dallas/Fort Worth/Arlington: 73.41
5. Denver/Aurora/Broomfield, Co.: 72.80
Best (Small Cities):
1. Omaha/Council Bluffs, Nev.: 79.59
2. Oklahoma City, Okla.: 76.25
3. Salt Lake City, Utah: 75.30
4. Austin/Round Rock/San Marcos, Texas: 74.27
5. Honolulu, Hawaii: 73.95
Worst (Big Cities):
1. Orlando/Kissimmee/Sanford, Fla.: 59.47
2. Tampa/St. Petersburg/Clearwater, Fla.: 60.13
3. Riverside/San Bernardino/Ontario, Calif.: 60.15
4. Las Vegas/Paradise, Nev.: 62.10
5. Miami/Fort Lauderdale/Pompano Beach, Fla.: 63.09
Worst (Small Cities):
1. Bakersfield/Delano, Calif.: 62.55
2. Fresno, Calif. : 62.68
3. North Port/Bradenton/Sarasota, Fla. : 63.01
4. Jacksonville, Fla. : 63.12
5. McAllen/Edinburg/Mission, Texas: 63.82
To check out the state-by-state index - and see how it's changed over time - go to CredAbility's Consumer Distress Index here.