Workers at the San Francisco Food Bank November 23, in 2009 but US jobless claims fell by 12,000 last week (Getty Images/AFP/File, Justin Sullivan)
Web Producer: Lucy Valencia, Assignment Desk Editor
WASHINGTON (AP) — The average number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits over the past month fell to the lowest level since March 2008, a sign that the job market is healing.
The Labor Department said Thursday that weekly applications dropped 12,000 to a seasonally adjusted 350,000 in the week ended Dec. 22. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, fell to a nearly five-year low of 356,750.
Still, the Christmas holiday may have distorted the figures. A department spokesman said many state unemployment offices were closed Monday and Tuesday and could not provide exact data. That forced the government to rely on estimates. Normally, the government might estimate application data for one or two states. Last week, it had to use estimates for 19.
The estimates are usually fairly accurate, the spokesman said. Even so, the government will likely revise the figures by more than normal next week.
Weekly applications are a proxy for layoffs. They have mostly fluctuated this year between 360,000 and 390,000. At the same time, employers have added an average of 151,000 jobs a month in the first 11 months of 2012. That's just enough to slowly reduce the unemployment rate.
Economists were mildly encouraged by the decline in applications. But they emphasized that the figures are volatile around the holidays. They were also distorted until recent weeks by Superstorm Sandy.
Many expect next week's jobs report to show that employers added about 150,000 jobs in December.
The decline in unemployment benefit applications suggests companies are not yet slashing jobs because of concerns over the "fiscal cliff." That's the name for sharp tax increases and spending cuts that are scheduled to take effect next week unless the Obama administration and Congress can reach a deal before then.
Still, unemployment remains high and companies are reluctant to ramp up hiring. The unemployment rate fell to 7.7 percent in November from 7.9 percent in October mostly because many of the unemployed stopped looking for jobs. The government counts people as unemployed only if they are actively searching for work.
Negotiations between President Barack Obama and House Republican leaders on a package to avoid the fiscal cliff stalemated last week. Obama and congressional lawmakers return to Washington Thursday with just days to go before the deadline.
The total number of people receiving benefits rose 73,000 to 5.48 million in the week ended Dec. 8, the latest data available.
That includes about 2.1 million people who have been out of work for at least six months and are receiving extended benefits paid for by the federal government. The program is ending at the end of the year. That means those recipients will receive their final checks next week, unless an extension is granted.
Obama wants an extension included in the budget deal. Republicans have yet to agree to that.
There are signs the economy is improving. The once-battered housing market is recovering, which should lead to more construction jobs in the coming months. Companies ordered more long-lasting manufactured goods in November, a sign they are investing more in equipment and software. And Americans spent more in November. Consumer spending drives nearly 70 percent of economic growth.
While a short fall over the cliff won't push the economy into recession, most economists expect some tax increases to take effect next year. That could slow growth.
Consumers are starting to worry about higher taxes. A measure of consumer confidence fell to a five-month low this month, a survey released Friday found. And reports show the holiday shopping season was the weakest since 2008, when the country was in a deep recession.
Email Alert Sign Up
Sign up here to receive breaking news stories from KSWT.com and morning updates to your email inbox.
Thank you for signing up! You will receive a confirmation email shortly.
Yuma, AZ- On April 23, 2012 police responded to a report of a dead man inside of this home near 9th Avenue and 1st street in Yuma. When police arrived they found the body of 20- year old Angel MontaldoMore >>
Yuma, AZ- Court records show Michael Rose is being charged with 2 counts of 1st Degree Murder and 1 count of Burglary.More >>
YUMA, Ariz. (13 On Your Side) – A man wanted for a murder that happened more than a year ago has been arrested and is behind bars tonight. U.S. Marshals arrested 21-year-old Michael Rose on May 10 andMore >>
A man wanted for a murder that happened more than a year ago has been arrested and is behind bars tonight.More >>
Yuma--It's an ongoing debate between politicians: border security. The Department Of Homeland Security points to research that shows the border is more secure today than ever before. But Republicans,More >>
It's an ongoing debate between politicians: border security. 13 On Your Side has a special report on the drug war just minutes across the border.More >>
PHOENIX (AP) - A suburban Phoenix restaurant plans to reopen Tuesday night after it temporarily shut its doors following an embarrassing reality TV experience. Wife and husband Amy and Samy Bouzaglo recentlyMore >>
PHOENIX (AP) - A suburban Phoenix restaurant plans to reopen Tuesday night after it temporarily shut its doors following an embarrassing reality TV experience.More >>
PHOENIX (AP) - A standoff with an armed man accused of abducting his 3-year-old son continues at a Phoenix home even after police used an armored truck to smash in the front of the house. Sgt. Steve MartosMore >>
A standoff with an armed man accused of abducting his 3-year-old son continues at a Phoenix home even after police used an armored truck to smash in the front of the house.More >>
Yuma, AZ- "None of them got any sleep last night." This resident who does not want his face shown on camera out of fear of retaliation says he and many of his neighbors were forced to sleep with oneMore >>
Yuma, AZ- This resident who does not want his face shown on camera out of fear of retaliation says he and many of his neighbors were forced to sleep with one eye open and one eye closed after..More >>
YUMA, AZ- Yuma Police continue to look for an armed robber wearing a black ski mask who used a shot gun to rob his victim. According to police an SUV with several passengers pulled up to a man whoMore >>
Yuma Police continue to look for an armed robber wearing a black ski mask who used a shot gun to rob his victim.More >>
YUMA, Ariz. (13 On Your Side) - More than 500 acres of land are consumed by a fire burning on the Arizona side of the Colorado River, known as Island Lake. As of this morning, the blaze is 5 percentMore >>
More than 500 acres of land are consumed by a fire burning on the Arizona side of the Colorado River, known as Island Lake.More >>