The government revised up its estimates of job growth for October and November by 14,000 jobs. October's job increases were revised down from 138,000 to 137,000 but November's were revised up from 146,000 to 161,000.
Economists said the pace of hiring almost certainly isn't strong enough to lead the Federal Reserve to cut short its bond-buying program. The Fed is spending $85 billion a month on bond purchases to try to drive down long-term borrowing costs and stimulate economic growth.
The job market is being held back by government cutbacks. Governments at all levels cut 13,000 jobs in December. Since the Great Recession ended in mid-2009, governments have eliminated 645,000 jobs — an average of nearly 15,400 a month.
By contrast, during the recoveries from the recessions of 1990-1991 and 2001, governments added an average of more than 15,000 jobs a month. If governments were hiring at that pace instead of slashing payrolls, the U.S economy would be generating more than 180,000 jobs a month.
Instead, for two full years, monthly job growth has remained stuck at a tepid pace: It averaged 153,000 in both 2011 and 2012. That isn't enough to lower unemployment to what economists regard as a "normal" rate of 6 percent or less. The Federal Reserve doesn't expect unemployment to drop that low until after 2015.
The economy has replaced just 4.8 million, or 54 percent, of the 8.8 million jobs lost between January 2008, when the job market peaked, and February 2010, when it bottomed during the recession. It has been, by far, the weakest jobs recovery since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
"A status quo report in today's labor market represents an ongoing jobs crisis," says Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the liberal Economic Policy Institute.
Still, the economy has been showing broad improvement. Layoffs are down. Banks are lending a bit more freely. Companies have built up a near-record $1.7 trillion in cash. Consumers have cut their debts to pre-recession levels. Europe has avoided a financial catastrophe.
The once-depressed housing market is rebounding. A gauge of U.S. service firms' business activity expanded in December by the most in nearly a year. Manufacturing is benefiting from the best auto sales in five years. And Americans spent more at the end of the crucial holiday shopping season.
"There is little doubt that the seeds of faster growth are being planted," James Marple, an economist at TD Bank, said in a note to clients.
That said, most economists expect slight improvement at best in hiring this year. A 2 percentage point cut in the Social Security tax expired Jan. 1. That means a household with income of about $50,000 will have about $1,000 less to spend. A household with two high-paid workers will have up to $4,500 less.
And the government may impose spending cuts this year.
Higher taxes and less government spending, along with uncertainty about future budget fights, could restrain growth and hiring.
That "likely means acceleration in the labor market will remain elusive for the time being," said Ellen Zentner, an economist at Nomura Securities.
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