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WASHINGTON -The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits dropped to a one-year low last week, providing a powerful boost to an economy on the verge of stronger growth as the public health situation improves and temperatures rise.
But the labor market is not out of the woods yet, with the weekly jobless claims report from the Labor Department on Thursday showing a staggering 18.953 million people were still receiving unemployment checks in early March. It will likely take years for a full recovery from the pandemic's scarring.
President Joe Biden in his first press conference highlighted the brightening economic outlook and drop in claims to their lowest level since the COVID-19 pandemic barreled across the United States just over a year ago.
"There are still too many Americans out of work, too many families are hurting and I still have a lot of work to do," Biden said. "But I can say to you the American people, help is here and hope is on the way."
Initial claims for state unemployment benefits tumbled 97,000 to a seasonally adjusted 684,000 for the week ended March 20, the lowest since mid-March. Data for the prior week was revised to show 11,000 more applications received than previously reported. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 730,000 applications for the latest week.
Including a government-funded program for the self-employed, gig workers and others who do not qualify for the regular state programs, 898,534 people filed claims last week, dropping below one million for the first time since the pandemic started.
The decline was led by Ohio, which has been dogged by fraud, and Illinois. Claims shot up in the second week of March, likely as backlogs after severe winter storms in Texas and other parts of the densely populated South region were processed.
The deep freeze in the second half of February, which also gripped other parts of the country, depressed retail sales, homebuilding, production at factories, orders and shipments of manufactured goods last month.
Warmer weather, passage of the White House's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 pandemic rescue package and increased vaccinations are expected to boost activity beginning March.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell struck an optimistic note on the economy in testimony before lawmakers this week.
U.S. stocks were mixed. The dollar rose against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices were mostly lower.
CORPORATE PROFITS FALL
But the massive fiscal stimulus, which extended government-funded unemployment aid, including a $300 weekly supplement, through Sept. 6, could keep claims elevated as some people reapply for benefits. Claims surged to a record 6.867 million in March 2020. They remain above their 665,000 peak during the 2007-2009 Great Recession. In a healthy labor market, claims are normally in a range of 200,000 to 250,000.