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March 8, 2013

US adds 236,000 jobs, unemployment falls to 7.7 percent

WASHINGTON — U.S. employers ramped up hiring in February, adding 236,000 jobs and pushing the unemployment rate down to 7.7 percent from 7.9 percent in January. Stronger hiring shows businesses are confident about the economy, despite higher taxes and government spending cuts.

The government's February employment report released Friday was filled with mostly encouraging details. The unemployment rate is now at its lowest level in four years. Hiring has averaged more than 200,000 per month since November. Wages increased. And the job gains were broad-based, led by the best construction hiring in six years.

One negative detail: Employers added fewer jobs in January than first estimated. Job gains were lowered to 119,000 from an initially reported 157,000. Still, December hiring was a little better than first thought, with 219,000 jobs added instead of 196,000.

The unemployment rate had been stuck at 7.8 percent or above since September. About half the decline in February occurred because more of the unemployed found jobs. A decline in the number of people looking for work accounted for the other half. People who aren't looking for jobs aren't counted as unemployed.

Strong auto sales and a steady housing recovery are spurring more hiring, which could lead to stronger economic growth. The construction industry added 48,000 in February and 151,000 since September. Manufacturing has gained 14,000 last month and 39,000 since November.

So far, higher gas prices and a Jan. 1 increase in Social Security taxes haven't caused Americans to cut back on big-ticket purchases.

Across-the-board government spending cuts also kicked in March 1 after the White House and Congress failed to reach a deal to avoid them. Those cuts will likely lead to furloughs and layoffs in coming weeks.

The impact of the tax hikes is partly being offset by higher pay: Hourly wages rose 4 cents to $23.82 last month. Wages are up 2.1 percent in the past year, which is ahead of inflation for the fourth straight month.

A big source of strength has also been home sales and residential construction: New-home sales jumped 16 percent in January to the highest level since July 2008. And builders started work on the most homes last year since 2008.

Home prices rose by the most in more than six years in the 12 months that ended in January. Higher prices tend to make homeowners feel wealthier and more likely to spend.

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