- The Washington Times - Friday, November 3, 2006

2:18 p.m.

The unemployment rate dropped to a five-year low of 4.4 percent in October as employers added 92,000 new jobs — flashing a picture of a strong labor market as the midterm elections approach.

The latest report, released today by the Labor Department, showed that the civilian unemployment rate fell 0.2 percentage point from 4.6 percent in September. It marked the third month in a row that the jobless rate declined.

The tally of new jobs added to the economy in October fell short of economists expectations for an increase of about 125,000 positions. However, job gains in both August and September turned out to be much stronger than previously estimated — and that took much of the sting out of October’s less-than-expected payroll performance.

“The job market is healthy even though the economy has been slowing. This report tells us the economy is holding its own, not spiraling downward,” said Stuart Schweitzer, global market strategist for JPMorgan Asset and Wealth Management.

Today’s report provided the last snapshot of the nation’s employment scene before Tuesday’s elections.

“Tax cuts have led to a strong and growing economy, and this morning we got more proof of that,” President Bush said while speaking on the economy at a Republican rally in Springfield, Mo. “All those forecasts by the Democrats turned out to be wrong. And now they’re forecasting they’re going to win the election.

“If their elections forecasts are as good as their economic forecasts, we are going to have a great day on Nov. 7.”

How voters view job availability, wage growth and other economic conditions is likely to play a role in the balloting nationwide on Tuesday. Republicans, fighting to retain control of Congress, say Americans are mostly better off, while Democratic rivals disagree, saying low- and middle-income workers are struggling.

Mr. Bush’s approval rating on the economy is at 40 percent among all adults surveyed in an AP-Ipsos poll. That remains near his lowest ratings. Those surveyed said they trusted Democrats more than Republicans to handle the economy.

On Wall Street, the employment news helped push stocks higher.

Workers saw solid wage gains last month.

Workers’ average hourly earnings climbed to $16.91 in October, a sizable 0.4 percent increase from September. That increase was bigger than the 0.3 percent rise economists were expecting. During the past 12 months, wages grew by 3.9 percent.

Growth in wages is good for workers, but a rapid and sustained advance makes economists fret about inflation flaring up. That’s not good for the economy or workers’ pocketbooks because, ultimately, inflation can eat into everybody’s buying power.

The hunt for a job got shorter.

The average time the unemployed spent in their search for work in October was 16.5 weeks, an improvement from the average 17.4 weeks registered in September.

On the payroll front, job losses in manufacturing, construction and retail offset gains in professional and business services, education and health, government and elsewhere.

Factories shed 39,000 jobs in October, marking the fourth straight month of employment cuts. Construction companies got rid of 26,000 jobs, while retailers trimmed 3,500 positions.

Professional and business services, meanwhile, added 43,000 jobs. Education and health expanded employment by 28,000, and the government payroll swelled by 34,000.

All told, the 92,000 total net jobs added in October were the fewest in a year, when the economy was suffering the blow of the Gulf Coast hurricanes.

That disappointment, however, was offset by much better job gains in the previous two months. Employers added 148,000 jobs in September versus the 51,000 first reported. Payrolls grew by a robust 230,000 in August, stronger than the 188,000 slots previously recorded.

The 4.4 percent unemployment rate was the lowest since spring 2001.

The jobless rate for blacks fell to 8.6 percent last month from 9.2 percent in September. The unemployment rate for Hispanics dropped to 4.7 percent from 5.4 percent. The jobless rate for teenagers declined to 15.4 percent from 16.4 percent.

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