WASHINGTON — Little by very little, the job market is getting better.
A closely watched measure of the jobs crisis, the number of people filing for unemployment benefits for the first time each week, fell to 388,000 in a report released Thursday, its lowest point since April.
The four-week average, which economists check because it smooths out the week-to-week fluctuations in the job market, dropped below 400,000 for the first time in seven months.
Claims would have to be below 375,000 – and consistently – to signal the sustained job gains that the United States needs to lower its 9 percent unemployment rate. But economists were at least encouraged by the trend.
"The level isn't as important as the change," said Michael Gapen, senior U.S. economist at Barclays Capital. "And right now that's suggesting moderate improvement."
The number of Americans receiving unemployment benefits fell to 3.6 million. That is the fewest since Sept. 20, 2008 – the week that Lehman Brothers went bankrupt and started the financial meltdown.
The 3.6 million figure is through Nov. 5. That's down from nearly 4 million at the beginning of the year. Some of that decline is because recipients found work, but much of it is because many of the unemployed have used up all their benefits.
The government's count of the total number of Americans on the jobless rolls trails the report on first-time claims by one week.
The nation added 80,000 jobs in October, the 13th straight month of gains. It added more in August and September – 104,000 and 158,000 – than the government first thought. It takes about 125,000 a month to keep up with population growth.
The unemployment claims figure suggests businesses haven't become spooked and started laying off workers because of the turmoil in Europe, where one country after another is wrestling with debt problems.
Still, "layoffs aren't holding back the economy, it's the lack of hiring," said Ryan Sweet, an economist at Moody's Analytics. "Businesses seem content just sitting on the sidelines for now."
Sweet said he believes the economy will add 115,000 jobs this month, about the average from the past three months.
Powered by stronger consumer spending, the economy grew in July, August and September at an annual rate of 2.5 percent, considerably faster than the 1.3 percent the quarter before.
Weekly unemployment claims peaked at 659,000 in March 2009, the low point of the Great Recession. In a healthy economy, with unemployment below 6 percent, they would be about 325,000.
Looking just at the claims figure can be misleading, of course. Even if unemployment claims fell to 325,000 now, it's much tougher to find a job than it would be in a healthy economy, so people are staying on the rolls much longer.More than 42 percent of those out of work have been unemployed for six months or more, close to the record, 46 percent, set last year. In a normal job market, that figure is about 15 percent.