WASHINGTON – A burst of hiring in February added 236,000 U.S. jobs and reduced the unemployment rate to 7.7 percent from 7.9 percent in January. The strong job growth showed that employers are confident about the economy despite higher taxes and government spending cuts.
The February jobs report issued Friday provided encouraging details: The unemployment rate is at its lowest level in four years. Job growth has averaged more than 200,000 a month since November. Wages rose. And the job gains were broad-based, led by the most construction hiring in six years.
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.
Employers did add slightly fewer jobs in January than the government had first estimated. Job gains were lowered to 119,000 from an initially estimated 157,000. Still, December hiring was a little better than first thought, with 219,000 jobs added instead of 196,000.
Robust auto sales and a steady housing recovery are spurring more hiring, which could trigger more consumer spending and stronger economic growth. The construction industry added 48,000 in February and has added 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 have risen 2.1 percent in the past year, slightly ahead of inflation.
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.