WASHINGTON - The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell 9,000 to a seasonally adjusted 346,000 last week, evidence that the job market is still improving modestly, despite signs of slower growth.
The four-week average, a less volatile figure, declined 2,750 to 345,750, the Labor Department said Thursday.
That's near the five-year low of 338,000 that the average touched last month.
Applications are a proxy for layoffs. Since March, they have fluctuated between 340,000 and 360,000, a level consistent with steady hiring. Employers added 175,000 jobs in May, almost matching the average monthly gain for the past year.
Steady job gains could help the economy expand later this year. Growth was only 1.8 percent at an annual rate in the first quarter, the government said Wednesday, down from a previous estimate of 2.4 percent.
The main reason for the lower estimate was consumers spent less than previously thought. That suggests that an increase in Social Security taxes Jan. 1 may have forced some Americans to cut back.
The economy is probably still expanding at a tepid pace in the April-June quarter, economists estimate. That could make it difficult for employers to keep adding workers.
Slower growth could also mean the Federal Reserve may delay its plans to slow its monthly bond purchases, economists said. Those purchases are intended to keep long-term interest rates low.
Chairman Ben Bernanke rattled financial markets last week when he said the Fed would slow its purchases if the economy continued to strengthen. But the Fed may not be able to follow through until growth accelerates from the first quarter's pace. Some economists think that may not happen until the final three months of the year.
Some economic reports this week have been encouraging. U.S. factories are fielding more orders. Higher home sales and prices are signaling a steady housing recovery.
Spending at retail businesses rose in May, a sign that solid job growth has encouraged Americans to open their wallets. And the improving job market has lifted consumer confidence to its highest point in 5 1/2 years.