The number of Americans lining up to file an initial claim for jobless aid fell last week to its lowest level since early 2001, the government said on Wednesday in a better-than-expected report showing layoffs easing.

First-time filings for state unemployment benefits (search) dropped 11,000 to 351,000 in the week ended Nov. 22, the Labor Department (search) said. The decrease brought claims to their healthiest level since the week of Jan. 20, 2001, before the economy slipped into recession.

Economists polled ahead of the report expected claims to edge up to 360,000 from the 355,000 previously reported for the week ended Nov. 15.

The decline pulled the closely watched four-week average of claims, which smooths weekly volatility, down by 10,000 to 358,750, the lowest point since February 2001.

The report also showed the number of unemployed still on the benefit rolls in the Nov. 15 week fell by a sharp 105,000 to 3.37 million, a level not seen since early February.

The relatively low level of claims has helped fuel expectations that the U.S. economy is enjoying its fourth consecutive month of jobs growth. The department releases its comprehensive employment report for November in a little over a week and economists expect about 125,000 new positions were added this month.

The economy generated 286,000 non-farm jobs over the past three months -- its best three-month performance since sinking into recession in March 2001.

Still, jobs growth has fallen far short of the 150,000 or so new positions economists say would be needed each month to whittle away at unemployment.