Thursday, May 21, 2009

Charting the course of economic misery

Reprinted in The Albany Times Union, Albany, NY; May 18, 2009

AP's Interactive Stress Map a guide to fallen dreams, rising hopes

By TED ANTHONY, Associated Press

Through the voices of its people, the map shouts.

From Atlanta, Ga., 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: "There's not a big calling in the civilian world for explosives."

The republic is brimming with Americans like these. And the Associated Press Economic Stress Map helps us find their voices and tell their stories.

The interactive Stress Map offers insight into the American recession, translating it into misery and geography using an equation, the Stress Index, that shows us — state by state, county by county — just how uncertain and battered around we actually are. It takes the numbers, the pronouncements, the big plans for recovery and illustrates what they mean on Main Street USA, or what passes for it in 21st-century American communities.

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

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

The current recession spread like an epidemic from isolation to ubiquity, marching from sequestered pockets of foreclosure to a nationwide explosion of misery as unemployment overtook foreclosures as the dominant misfortune of this recession.

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 like 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.

While bankruptcy declarations are happening everywhere, they tend to be higher in the South because of such things as 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. When recovery comes, it can be a map of optimism as well, a welcome harbinger of better days approaching. Going forward, it can track the recovery we hunger for — show us where it is poking its head up, where it is spreading and who it is leaving behind.

The map, and the numbers behind it, cannot tell us everything. No single number can track Americans' net worth, no barometer indicates the pain factor of people who lost retirement funds, whose stocks vanished out from under them, who set aside nest eggs that now amount to little or nothing.

But it can help compare and contrast places, then find the people who breathe life into the numbers that characterize their regions and their hometowns. 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.

Where can we go with this map? It can carry us to Los Gatos, Calif., one of the high-tech regions that seemed to be escaping the worst of the recession but is now clawing to keep pace. It can point us toward Champaign, Ill., an example of the trend that communities with government institutions tend to be more recession-proof than others.

For the immediate future, the AP Economic Stress Map will attempt to do just that for the United States. AP reporters will be fanning out across the land, telling regular stories based on the monthly numbers — stories of people like Ron Edo, 42, an aircraft maintenance worker from Temecula, Calif., who has sent out more than 1,500 resumes since he lost his job a year ago.

"Luckily I saved when I was young," he says. "My parents used to always tell me to save for a rainy day. And it's pouring."

Click on title above for interactive "stress" map;

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