WASHINGTON -- The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits rose to its highest level in four months last week, suggesting the labor market recovery lost some steam in March.
Initial claims for state unemployment benefits increased 28,000 to a seasonally adjusted 385,000, the highest level since November, the Labor Department said on Thursday.
It was the third straight week of gains in claims. Coming on the heels of data on Wednesday showing private employers added the fewest jobs in five months in March, the report implied some weakening in job growth after hiring accelerated in February.
Economists polled by Reuters had expected first-time applications last week to fall to 350,000.
The four-week moving average for new claims, a better measure of labor market trends, rose 11,250 to 354,250.
A Labor Department analyst said claims for California and the Virgin Islands had been estimated and there were no special factors in the underlying state-level data.
While the claims report has no bearing on Friday's nonfarm payrolls data for March as it falls outside the survey period, it hinted at some weakness in hiring.
Employers are expected to have added 200,000 jobs to their payrolls last month, according to a Reuters survey, slowing from February's brisk 236,000. The jobless rate is seen unchanged at 7.7 percent.
Claims over the next several weeks will be watched closely for signs of layoffs related to $85 billion in government budget cuts known as the "sequester."
The labor market is key to the Federal Reserve's monetary policy. This month the central bank said it would maintain its monthly $85 billion purchases of mortgage and Treasury bonds to keep rates low and foster faster job growth.
The number of people still receiving benefits under regular state programs after an initial week of aid dropped 8,000 to 3.06 million in the week ended March 23.
Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; editing by Andrea Ricci.
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Nationally, the average gas price hit a recent high of $3.74 per gallon, nearly $0.50 higher than it was on Jan. 1. According to website GasBuddy.com, that's about a 14 percent increase since the start of the year.
The start of the new year also marked the end of the temporary 2 percentage point tax break on Social Security contributions. Once that part of President Obama's stimulus package expired, your paychecks went back to being 2 percent smaller. For the average family, that adds up to about $1,000 a year.
That same "average family," by the way, already earns only about $50,000 a year today. And according to CNN, that's about $4,000 less than you were earning in 2000.
A disconcerting report from Sallie Mae last week showed that about one-third of Americans working toward retirement are having to raid their retirement savings to pay for their kids' college educations.
According to a poll commissioned by Bankrate.com (RATE) in February, only 55 percent of Americans have enough money tucked away in their savings accounts and "emergency funds" to cover the amounts owed on their credit cards.
That Bankrate poll also revealed that among women in particular, 51 percent actually owe more on their credit cards than they have cash in the bank. Digging deeper into the data, Bankrate reported that while high earners are doing well, and generally flush, most people (59 percent) who earn less than $30,000 annually owe more on their cards than they have in savings. And these are the people least able to afford the high cost of credit card interest.
Speaking of earnings -- and jobs -- the same unemployment report that set Wall Street to cheering Friday can be looked at from a glass half empty perspective as well. The new, lower unemployment level of 7.7 percent is the best number we've seen since the Great Recession ended. However, The Wall Street Journal points out that 7.7 percent is very close to the worst unemployment ever got (7.8 percent) in the 1991 recession. Our best number in years is within a whisker of the worst they faced back then.
The overall workforce participation rate -- the percentage of Americans currently earning wages at all -- currently stands at just 63.5 percent. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that's much worse than what we saw in the 1991 recession. It's the lowest we've seen since the recession that hit during the Carter administration.
Little wonder, then, that according to the Bankrate survey, people are increasingly concerned about "job security." Friday's unemployment report may suggest that the jobs market is on the mend, but most people (59 percent) say they feel no more or less confident in their employment situation today than they did a year ago. Among those polled whose opinions have changed, 23 percent said they feel "less secure today" than they did a year ago, versus 19 percent who feel more secure.
That doesn't exactly jibe with the story that things are getting better.
It's great news for folks who own stocks, no doubt, and according to the Journal , more than 90 percent of people earning $100,000 or more do. But what about the rest of us? Fewer than 46 percent of Americans earning less than $50,000 are invested in the stock market -- and remember, "$50,000" is the average income in America today.
So yes, It turns out for the average American, things may not be getting better at all.