WASHINGTON (AP) -- The number of people applying for unemployment benefits declined slightly last week, leaving applications above levels consistent with a healthy economy.
Weekly applications dropped by 6,000 to a seasonally adjusted 403,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. The previous week's figure was revised up to 409,000.
Applications are ticking down. The four-week average fell for the fourth straight week to 403,000. A month ago it was 422,250.
Still, applications need to fall consistently below 375,000 to signal sustainable job growth. They haven't been below that level since February.
Economists have been closely watching the unemployment benefits report since fears of another recession intensified in August. Layoffs and applications tend to rise at the beginning of recessions. The slow decline in applications suggests hiring remains sluggish but layoffs aren't worsening.
Employers pulled back on hiring this spring, after rising gas prices cut into consumer spending and Japan's March 11 earthquake disrupted supply chains. That slowed U.S. auto production.
Auto output has rebounded in the past couple of months and gas prices have come down from their peak in early May. Those trends likely boosted growth in the July-September quarter to about 2.5 percent, economists predict. That's an improvement from the 0.9 percent annual rate in the first six months of this year. But it's not enough to spur much job growth.
Employers have added an average of only 72,000 jobs per month in the past five months. That's far below the 100,000 per month needed to keep up with population growth. And it's down from an average of 180,000 in the first four months of this year.
In September, the economy generated 103,000 net jobs. That was enough to calm recession fears, but it wasn't enough to lower the unemployment rate, which stayed at 9.1 percent.