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Jul 17, 10:01 PM EDT

US unemployment aid applications drop to 302,000


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WASHINGTON (AP) -- The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits fell last week, a steady decline that suggests a strengthening job market.

Weekly applications for unemployment aid dipped 3,000 to a seasonally adjusted 302,000, the Labor Department said Thursday.

The four-week average, a less volatile measure, dropped 3,000 to 309,000, the lowest level since June 2007, about five months before the start of the Great Recession.

Applications are a proxy for layoffs, a sign that they expect economic growth to continue. When businesses are confident enough to keep staff, they are also likely to hire more people.

Hiring is at its healthiest clip since the late 1990s and the 6.1 percent unemployment rate is at a 5 1/2-year low. Employers added 288,000 jobs in June, the fifth straight month of job gains above 200,000.

The latest report on unemployment benefits "suggests another solid payroll report" with job additions in July, said Jennifer Lee, a senior economist at BMO Capital Markets.

Still, the steady hiring gains have yet to boost wages significantly. Wage growth has barely matched inflation since the recession ended five years ago.

But more people with jobs increases the total number of paychecks, which could boost consumer spending and growth. After a sharp contraction in the economy in the first three months of the year, most economists expect growth to return in the April-June quarter and exceed 3 percent at an annual pace in the second half of 2014.

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