The unemployment rate jumped almost half a point to 9.7 percent in August, the highest since 1983, reflecting a poor job market that will make it hard for the economy to begin a sustained recovery.
While the jobless rate rose more than expected, the economy shed a net total of 216,000 jobs, less than July's revised 276,000 and the fewest monthly losses in a year, according to Labor Department data released Friday. Economists expected the unemployment rate to rise to 9.5 percent from July's 9.4 percent and job reductions to total 225,000.
By contrast, in a healthy economy, employers need to add a net total of around 125,000 jobs a month just to keep the unemployment rate stable.
"It's good to see the rate of job losses slow down," said Nigel Gault, chief U.S. economist at IHS Global Insight. But "we're still on track here to hit 10 percent (unemployment) before we're done."
The rise in the jobless rate was largely due to the government finding that the number of unemployed Americans jumped by nearly 500,000 to 14.9 million, while 73,000 people joined the civilian labor force. Those figures are from a different survey than the report on total job cuts.
The civilian labor force usually grows as a recession winds down and optimism about finding work grows. But as long as Americans remain anxious about their jobs, consumer spending isn't expected to rise enough to power a rebound.
"There isn't the underlying fuel there for strong consumer spending growth," Gault said.
Instead, most of the current rebound in the economy stems from auto companies and other manufacturers restocking inventories, which have plummeted as factories and retailers have sought to bring goods more in line with reduced sales.
Few economists think that can provide the basis for a sustainable recovery. Gault forecasts the economy will grow at a 3.7 percent clip in the current July-September quarter, but expects that to fall to 2.4 percent by the fourth quarter and 2 percent in the first quarter next year.
Analysts expect businesses will be reluctant to hire until they are convinced the economy is on a firm path to recovery. Many private economists, and the Federal Reserve, expect the unemployment rate to top 10 percent by the end of this year.
If laid-off workers who have settled for part-time work or have given up looking for new jobs are included, the so-called underemployment rate reached 16.8 percent, the highest on records dating from 1994. That rate rose because the number of workers settling for part-time hours, either because their employer cut their work week or because that's all they could find, increased by about 300,000.
But earnings rose and the number of hours worked stayed above a recent record-low. Average hourly wages increased to $18.65 from $18.59, the department reported. Average weekly earnings increased to $617.32.
The number of weekly hours worked remained at 33.1, above the low of 33 reached in June. That figure is important because economists expect companies will add more hours for current workers before they hire new ones.
On Wall Street, stocks moved in a narrow range in midday trading. The Dow Jones industrial average added about 11 points, and broader indexes also edged up.
The recession has eliminated a net total of 6.9 million jobs since it began in December 2007. Job cuts last month remained widespread across many sectors.
The construction industry lost 65,000 jobs, which caused some economists to note that the Obama administration's $787 billion stimulus package hasn't yet stemmed layoffs in that industry.
"It doesn't look like a whole lot of those 'shovel ready' projects have been started," Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors, wrote in a note to clients.
Factories cut 63,000 jobs, while retailers pared 9,600 positions. The financial sector eliminated 28,000 jobs, while professional and business services dropped 22,000. Even the government lost 18,000 jobs, as the U.S. Postal Service cut 8,500 positions, and state and local governments laid off teachers and other school workers.
Health care and educational services was the only bright spot, adding 52,000 workers.
And the pace of layoffs is slowing. Job losses averaged 691,000 in the first quarter and fell to an average of 428,000 in the April-June period.
Other economic data released this week has been positive. The Institute for Supply Management, a trade group, said Tuesday that the manufacturing sector grew in August for the first time in 19 months. On Thursday, the ISM said its service sector index rose to 48.4 last month, the highest level in nearly a year. Home sales, meanwhile, have increased for several months and prices are stabilizing.
Federal Reserve policymakers said in minutes from an August meeting that they expect the economy to recover in the second half of this year. But labor market conditions are still "poor," the Fed minutes released Wednesday said, and many companies are likely to be "cautious in hiring" even as the economy picks up.
Some economists credit the stimulus package of tax cuts and spending increases, along with the Cash for Clunkers program, with contributing to a recovery. But they worry about what will happen when the impact of the stimulus efforts fades next year.
Administration officials argue the stimulus has already saved about 135,000 jobs. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said Friday that funds are still being injected into the economy and will continue to spur recovery.
"The recession has done more damage than could ever be fixed in half a year," Solis said.
Vice President Joe Biden defended the stimulus package Thursday against Republican critics who say it is too costly.
"The recovery act has played a significant role in changing the trajectory of our economy, and changing the conversation in this country," Biden said. "Instead of talking about the beginning of a depression, we are talking about the end of a recession."
Republicans criticized Biden's speech. "The Democrats' rhetoric on their economic experiment doesn't match with the reality of millions of Americans remaining unemployed," said Republican Party chief Michael Steele. "The stimulus was an economic experiment that failed Americans."
More job cuts were announced this week. Washington-based manufacturer Danaher Corp. said it will lay off about 3,300 of its roughly 50,000 employees, an increase from the 1,700 cuts it announced in the spring. American Airlines said it is cutting 921 flight attendant jobs as it deals with an ongoing downturn in traffic and lower revenue.