Applications for jobless benefits dropped in the U.S. last week to their lowest level since early April, a sign the nation’s labor market may be starting to improve.
The U.S. government reported Thursday that the number of first-time benefit claims fell by 24,000 from the previous week to 398,000, the first time in 16 weeks the number has fallen below the 400,000 level. The decrease would indicate that U.S. employers laid off fewer workers last week.
Despite the reduced number of claims, the U.S. economic recovery remains sluggish. Economists say that the weekly jobless claims figure should be about 375,000 for a sustained period to indicate a healthy expansion of the job market. More than 14 million Americans remain unemployed and the jobless rate has hovered at 9 percent or more for two years.
Analysts say the U.S. economy slowed slightly in the April-to-June period, down from the already tepid 1.9 percent growth rate in the first three months of the year. The government is releasing the second quarter figure on Friday and some economists said they expect the growth rate to be 1.8 percent.
The head of the U.S. central bank, Ben Bernanke, and private economists say the U.S. economy will expand more rapidly in the second half of this year, perhaps by an annual rate of 2.5 percent.
But even that figure would not be enough to reduce the unemployment rate by more than a little. A 5 percent growth rate would be needed to cut the jobless rate by a percentage point.
In another upbeat report for the U.S. economy, the National Association of Realtors said that the number of people who signed contracts to buy existing homes rose for the second straight month in June.
The trade group said that its pending home sales index increased by 2.4 percent last month, after an 8.2 percent gain in May. Together, however, the increased sales activity has yet to erase an even bigger decline in April.
The housing sector is among the weakest elements in the U.S. economy. While house prices have fallen sharply, and interest rates for loans are low, the market is plagued by a glut of foreclosed houses taken over by lenders when homeowners lost their jobs and could no longer afford to make their loan payments.