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A broader gauge that counts the unemployed, plus part-time workers who want full-time work and people who have given up looking for a job, was unchanged at 22.7 million.

Still, the economy is improving. Layoffs are declining. And the number of people who sought unemployment aid in the past month is near a four-year low.

The December jobs report showed that hourly pay is staying slightly ahead of inflation. Hourly wages rose 7 cents to $23.73, a 2.1 percent increase compared with a year earlier. Inflation rose 1.8 percent over the same period.

The once-depressed housing market is recovering. Companies ordered more long-lasting manufactured goods in November, a sign that they’re investing more in equipment and software. And Americans spent more in November. Consumer spending drives nearly 70 percent of economic growth.

Manufacturing is getting a boost from the best auto sales in five years. Car sales jumped 13 percent in 2012 to 14.5 million. And Americans spent more at the tail end of the holiday shopping season, boosting overall sales that had slumped earlier in the crucial two-month period.