NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The number of Americans filing for unemployment insurance for the first time fell last week, matching the lowest level since August 2008, according to government data released Thursday.
There were 439,000 initial jobless claims filed in the week ended March 27, down 6,000 from an upwardly revised 445,000 the previous week, according to the Labor Department's weekly report.
Economists surveyed by Briefing.com expected new claims to dip to 440,000 in the week. The number of new claims matches the level reached in the Feb. 6 week, which was the lowest point since the week ended Aug. 23, 2008.
The Labor Department also tracks the 4-week moving average of initial claims, which smoothes out volatility in the measure. That number was 447,250 for the week, down 6,750 from the previous week's downwardly revised average of 454,000.
"We saw a nice little drop of 6,000, which is consistent with our expectations of slow improvement [in the jobs market]," said Robert Dye, senior economist for PNC Financial Services Group.
The report also said that 4,662,000 people filed continuing claims in the week ended March 20, the most recent data available. That figure, the lowest level since Dec. 20, 2008, was down 6,000 from the preceding week's 4,668,000 claims, but higher than the 4.62 million economists expected, according to Briefing.com.
The 4-week moving average for continuing claims was 4,679,500, a decrease of 12,500 from the preceding week's revised average of 4,692,000.
Continuing claims data excludes people whose benefits expired or those who have moved to state or federal extensions. It reflects those filing each week after their initial claim until the end of their standard benefits, which usually last 26 weeks.
Continuing claims will be "the ongoing hangover effect of the recession," said Dye. "It's going to take a long time to absorb that slack in the labor market, even if we see moderate job creation."
President Obama and lawmakers in the House and Senate continue to push for more relief. In March, the deadline to file for unemployment insurance was extended and the president signed into law a number of tax breaks for businesses.
The measures are part of the effort by Congress to spark job growth and bring down the national unemployment rate, which stands at 9.7%.
Dye says job growth measures could be stifled by continuing claims, which will come down "grudgingly slow" and keep unemployment within the 9% to 9.5% range.
Jobless claims fell the most in California, with a decline of 5,180, primarily due to fewer layoffs in the construction industry. Pennsylvania and North Carolina also were among the top 3 states that had the largest declines in new claims.
Illinois, Oklahoma, and Missouri topped the list of increases in initial claims.
The report came ahead of Friday's much anticipated non-farm payrolls figures for March. Economists surveyed by Briefing.com expect an increase of 190,000 jobs, many of them temporary Census-related positions instead of full-time growth in the private sector.
"The proof in the pudding is going to be what kinds of gains we're going to see in the private sector," said Dye. "What we need to see is the economy making a transition from a government-aided recovery to a self-sustaining economy."
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