By Christopher S. Rugaber
AP Economics Writer
Washington — New requests for unemployment benefits fell sharply last week, the first decline in a month and an upbeat sign after a raft of negative economic reports.
New claims for jobless aid dropped by 31,000 to a seasonally adjusted 473,000, the Labor Department reported Thursday. Still, claims remain much higher than they would be in a healthy economy. Employers are reluctant to hire as economic growth appears to be slowing.
The drop comes after a steep rise the previous three weeks that sent claims to their highest level in nine months. Those increases raised fears that businesses were starting to lay off more workers.
Even with last week’s decline, the four-week average, a less volatile measure, rose to 486,750, the most since November 2009.
The report is “mildly encouraging” but should be treated with caution, said Doug Porter, an economist at BMO Capital Markets, because the weekly claims report is highly volatile.
The Labor Department, meanwhile, also reported the total unemployment benefit rolls climbed steeply, as more people join extended unemployment aid programs that were renewed last month by Congress. During the recession, Congress added up to 73 weeks of emergency aid on top of the 26 weeks typically provided by the states.
All told, about 10.1 million people were receiving unemployment checks in the week ended Aug. 7, the latest data available. That’s up about 260,000 from the previous week.
The extended program lapsed in June, throwing nearly 2 million people off the rolls. But since Congress renewed the program, the total benefit rolls have increased by 2.2 million, according to Dan Greenhaus, chief economic strategist at Miller Tabak.
That suggests “that there is little if any meaningful hiring throughout the economy,” according to a note to clients attributed to Greenhaus.
The economy has grown for four straight quarters. But the pace has slowed from a 5 percent annual rate in last year’s fourth quarter to 3.7 percent in the January-to-March period. It has weakened even further in the past several months.
Many economists said they expect the government Friday to revise lower its growth estimate for the April-June quarter to below 2 percent. That’s weak in normal times and even worse after such a steep recession.
Jobless claims fell steadily last year as the economy began expanding, dropping from a peak of 651,000 in March 2009 to about 460,000 at the beginning of this year. After fluctuating around that level for most of this year, claims started climbing again last month.
In a healthy economy, claims generally fall below 400,000.