WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. employers pulled back on hiring in April for the second straight month, evidence of an economy still growing only sluggishly. The unemployment rate dipped, but only because more people gave up looking for work.
The Labor Department said Friday that the economy added just 115,000 jobs in April. That's below March's upwardly revised 154,000 jobs and far fewer than the pace earlier this year.
The unemployment rate dropped to 8.1 percent last month from 8.2 percent in March. It's fallen a full percentage point since August to a three-year low. But last month's rate decline wasn't due to job growth. The government counts people as unemployed only if they're actively looking for work.
In April, the percentage of adults working or looking for work fell to the lowest level in more than 30 years. Many have become discouraged about their prospects.
Here's what The Associated Press' reporters are finding:
THE POLITICAL DEBATE
A falling unemployment rate would seem to be good news for President Barack Obama's re-election hopes. Dating to 1956, no incumbent president has lost when unemployment fell in the two years leading to an election. On Election Day, unemployment will almost certainly be lower than it was two years earlier: 9.8 percent in November 2010.
But for the past two months, the rate has fallen for the wrong reason: More than 500,000 Americans have stopped looking for jobs and are longer be counted as unemployed. Job growth averaged a healthy 252,000 from December through February. It slowed to 135,000 a month in March and April.
The question is whether voters will focus more on the falling unemployment rate (good for Obama) or on the modest job growth (not so good).
The percentage of Americans 16 and older who are working or looking for work fell to 63.6 percent, the lowest since 1981. For men, the so-called "labor force participation rate" is at 70 percent. That's the lowest since the government started keeping records in 1948.
The rate peaked at 67.3 percent in early 2000 as women poured into the workplace. Since then, it's fallen. Demographic and social trends help explain the drop: Baby boomers are aging and retiring.
And more women, especially those in upper-income families, are staying at home. The drop accelerated after the economy slid into recession in late 2007, leading many to give up looking for jobs.
The stock market didn't take the news well.
The Dow Jones industrial average sank 113 points, or 0.9 percent, in the first hour of trading. The broader Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 1 percent.
Earlier this week, the Dow reached its highest close since December 2007.
Technology stocks and banks led the market lower Friday. Utility companies were the only broad category of stock in the S&P 500 trading higher. They tend to do well when investors are nervous about the economy.
A LONG WAY TO GO
The United States has regained only 43 percent of the 8.78 million jobs lost from February 2008 to January 2010.
So far this year, the economy has generated 201,000 jobs a month. At that rate, it would take until May 2014 to restore employment to its 2008 peak of 138 million.
Of course, the population has grown since then. So it could take even longer to lower the unemployment rate to its 2008 level.