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.
Nevada was again by far the most troubled state with a Stress score of 22.56. It was followed by Florida (16.47), California (16.36), Georgia (14.5) and Arizona (14.46). Among those five, only Nevada's Stress score rose from November to December.
And once again, the healthiest states were in the Plains and New England. North Dakota had the lowest Stress score in December: 4.65. It was followed by Nebraska (5.38), South Dakota (5.69), Vermont (6.19) and New Hampshire (6.95).
Nationally, the unemployment rate has sunk over the past two months, from 9.8 percent in November to 9 percent in January. But hiring remains weak because employers still lack confidence in the economy.
Most analysts say the tax-cut deal that took effect this year will help. Extra take-home pay could lead consumers - who fuel about 70 percent of the economy - to spend more.
"The tax deal provides the economy with some significant juice that will lead to better growth, better job creation and lower unemployment," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics.
In December, stress increased the most in the West. That was due primarily to worsening bankruptcies and foreclosures. Foreclosures in the nation's hardest hit communities in California and Florida have dipped in recent months. But they've risen in areas like Seattle; Salt Lake City; Albuquerque, N.M.; and Greeley, Colo.
In December, Georgia joined the list of five most-stressed states for the first time, and Michigan emerged from the list for the first time. The Stress Index's calculations date to October 2007.
Michigan is benefiting from having missed the real estate bubble and bust. It's also managed its budget better than most other high-stress states have. Job hemorrhaging has been stanched, in part because of a more stable manufacturing sector. The state is expected to end 2011 with job gains for the first time in nearly a decade.
Many of the new jobs are in health care and professional services, though manufacturing is also adding jobs thanks to demand from overseas, said Hari Singh, an economist at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Mich.
"Manufacturing is definitely having a turnaround," Singh said.
In Georgia, the unemployment rate has risen steadily since July. So have foreclosures and bankruptcy filings. Georgia has the second-highest bankruptcy rate at about 2.2 percent, trailing only Nevada. It's also saddled with the seventh-highest foreclosure rate.
Its troubles stem from the state's real estate boom and collapse, said Rajeev Dhawan, an economist at Georgia State University.
"Bankruptcies and foreclosures are the side effects of the damage from the real estate bust," Dhawan said. "First, you have the real estate problem, and then it's going to spill over into bankruptcies and foreclosures. That is what has been happening in Georgia."
In December, the most economically stressed counties with populations of at least 25,000 were Imperial County, Calif (32.39); Lyon County, Nev. (27.56); Nye County, Nev. (25.91); Merced County, Calif. (25.37); and Yuma County, Ariz. (25.34).
The healthiest counties according to the Stress Index were Ellis County, Kan. (3.48); Buffalo County, Neb. (3.74); Ford County, Kan. (3.95); Ward County, N.D. (4.02); and Sioux County, Iowa (4.12).
Schneider reported from Orlando, Fla., Crutsinger from Washington.