Illustration by Emily Metcalf
Illustration by Emily Metcalf

The number of unemployed Americans making their first claims for jobless benefits edged higher last week, but remained at a level suggesting the country’s labor market is strengthening.

The U.S. Labor Department said Thursday that 362,000 unemployed workers sought compensation. But the four-week average remained at about 355,000 — close to a four-year low. Economists say that figure indicates businesses are hiring enough to reduce the country’s jobless rate.

The U.S. is the world’s largest economy, but it has struggled to recover from the recession that officially ended in mid-2009, the country’s worst downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930′s.

The unemployment rate has become a barometer for the state of the U.S. economy. It is also a contentious rallying point for Republican presidential candidates seeking to oust President Barack Obama, a Democrat, in next November’s national election. His opponents say he has mismanaged the nation’s economy, while Mr. Obama has pointed to an improving labor market.

On Friday, the government is set to release its February employment report, with analysts predicting the jobless rate will remain at the same 8.3 percent level.

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