Jobless Claims At Lowest Level In Over 3 Years - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather KHQ.com

Jobless Claims At Lowest Level In Over 3 Years

USATODAY.COM - The number of people seeking unemployment benefits rose last week after three straight weeks of declines to a level consistent with a modest pick-up in hiring.

That broader trend of jobless claims over the past month boltsters the view that job growth could pick up in 2012.

Weekly applications increased by 15,000 to a seasonally adjusted 381,000 the week ended Dec. 24, the Labor Department said Thursday.

The four-week average, a less volatile measure, dropped for the fourth straight week to 375,000. That's the lowest level since June 2008, before the financial and housing markets meltdown that precipitated a recession.

Applications generally must fall below 375,000 — consistently — to signal that hiring is strong enough to reduce the unemployment rate.

A survey of 36 economists by the Associated Press this month found that they expect the economy will generate an average of about 175,000 jobs per month in 2012.

More small businesses plan to hire than at any time in three years, a trade group said earlier this month. And a separate private-sector survey found more companies are planning to add workers in the first quarter of next year than at any time since 2008.

While layoffs have fallen sharply since the recession officially ended in mid-2009, many companies have been slow to add jobs.

Hiring has improved in recent months. Employers have added an average of 143,000 net jobs a month from September through November. That's almost double the average for the previous three months.

Next year should be even better. In November, the unemployment rate fell to 8.6% from 9%. Still, about half that decline occurred because many of the unemployed gave up looking for work. When people stop looking for a job, they're no longer counted as unemployed.

However, economists say the pickup in hiring reflects some modest improvement in the economy. Growth will likely top 3% at an annual rate in the final three months of this year, economists expect. That would be better than the middling 1.8% growth in the July-September quarter.

One potential drag on the U.S. economy going forward is the situation in Europe, where many of the nations are almost certain to fall into recession in 2012 because of their massive government debts, among other factors. And without more jobs and higher incomes, European consumers may have to cut back on spending.

The same will be true of U.S. consumers if the economy can't continue the momentum of 2011's last quarter. Congress removed one potential threat last week when it agreed to extend a payroll tax cut and to keep emergency unemployment benefits for two additional months. Both programs were scheduled to expire at the end of this month. Economists worried that ending the tax break and the extended unemployment benefits program would have left Americans with less money to spend.

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