US unemployment near three-year low
Updated: 2012-01-07 09:47
Vernon Tites, an out-of-work contractor from San Francisco, looks for jobs online at the Employment Development Department of California service office in San Francisco January 6, 2012. [Photo/Agencies]
WASHINGTON - US employment growth accelerated last month and the jobless rate dropped to a near three-year low of 8.5 percent, the strongest evidence yet the economic recovery is gaining steam.
Nonfarm payrolls increased 200,000 in December, the Labor Department said on Friday. It was the biggest rise in three months and beat economists' expectations for a 150,000 gain.
The unemployment rate fell from a revised 8.7 percent in November to its lowest level since February 2009, a heartening sign for President Barack Obama whose re-election hopes could hinge on the state of the labor market.
"The labor market is healing, but we still have a long way to go to recoup the losses we have endured. We may be close to a tipping point where gains can become more self-feeding," said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial in Chicago.
A string of better-than-expected US data in recent weeks has highlighted a contrast between the recovery in the world's biggest economy and Europe, where the economy is widely believed to be contracting.
The jobs data was overshadowed in financial markets by concerns over Europe's debt crisis. US stocks ended mostly down, while Treasury debt prices rose on safe-haven bids.
The dollar rose to a near 16-month high against the euro.
Republican presidential hopefuls have blasted Obama's economic policies as doing more harm than good.
The latest economic signs, however, could offer him some political protection.
The economy added 1.6 million jobs last year, the most since 2006, and the jobless rate, which peaked at 10 percent in October 2009, has dropped 0.6 percentage point in the last four months.
Obama welcomed the news and urged Congress to extend a two-month payroll tax cut through 2012 to help sustain the recovery.
"We're moving in the right direction. When Congress returns they should extend the middle-class tax cut for all of this year, to make sure we keep this recovery going," he said.