I've never given much thought to 'Economic Stress", but when you look at the numbers it makes perfect sense. Montana's counties are very diverse economically and Sanders County takes home an unfortunate title. - Michelle

From The Missoulian: THOMPSON FALLS - The extreme northwest corner of Montana is home to some of the state's prettiest scenery, and, according to the Associated Press' 2011 Economic Stress Index, its ugliest economies.

The index, which measures the combined unemployment, bankruptcy and foreclosure rates to assess the economies of every county in the nation, says Sanders County has the worst numbers in Montana.

Neighboring Lincoln and Mineral counties aren't far behind.

Generally speaking, the farther east you go in the state, the better local economies are faring, according to the index. Missoula County's number, for instance, is one of the best in western Montana, but worse than every county east of the Continental Divide.

Larry Swanson, director of the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Missoula, didn't even have to see the AP map to have a pretty good idea of the story the numbers told - and others that might not be so apparent.

"Up in the northwest part of Montana, you have a legacy of wood products and mining dependency," Swanson said. "They've had the most difficult time adjusting to the transition in the economy. They're a little more stuck in time economically."

But Swanson also said the numbers must be viewed in the correct context.

The state's best local economies are in rural counties in eastern Montana, according to the index, but Swanson said that can be misleading.

"Are they having a lot of foreclosures?" he asked. "No, because they didn't build a lot of houses. Do they have high unemployment rates? No, because people are leaving. Those rural counties in eastern Montana are all still losing population."

The higher the number, the more the financial stress being felt by local residents, according to the Economic Stress Index.

Sanders County came in at 21.42.

Lincoln County's number was 20.9, followed by Mineral (18.01), Flathead (16.14), Ravalli (14.55), Lake (14.4), Granite (14.25), Powell (11.99) and Missoula (10.05).

Compare those to the numbers from some of Montana's easternmost counties: 3.36 (Richland), 3.38 (Fallon), 3.57 (McCone).

"It's very contextual," Swanson said, "and can be very misleading. You have to put it within the context of the last two years of the economic recession."