WASHINGTON - The number of people seeking unemployment benefits rose a slight 4,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 372,000, evidence that the job market's recovery remains modest and uneven.
The Labor Department said Thursday that the four-week average, a less volatile measure, increased 3,750 to 368,000.
Applications are a measure of the pace of layoffs. When they fall consistently below 375,000, it generally suggests hiring is strong enough to lower the unemployment rate.
Applications have risen for two straight weeks. But they are still lower than they were five weeks ago. That suggests hiring could improve slightly this month.
The economy and job growth have been improving a bit after falling into a midyear slump, though neither is particularly strong.
One area of improvement has been the housing market, which is slowly but steadily recovering. Sales of previously occupied homes rose 2.3 percent in July from June, the National Association of Realtors said Wednesday. Sales jumped more than 10 percent in the past year.
Other recent reports have contributed to the picture of a healing industry. Home prices are rising nationwide. And builders are growing increasingly confident because they're seeing more traffic from potential buyers. An index of builder confidence rose to its highest level in five years in August.
Builders responded by applying for the largest number of building permits in nearly four years last month. They broke ground on slightly fewer new homes in July than in June. But that was after the number of housing starts had reached a 3 1/2-year high in June.
In another positive sign, Americans boosted their retail spending in July by the most in five months, the Commerce Department said last week. That suggests yet more confidence in the economy.
And factory output rose in July for the second straight month, according to a report Wednesday from the Federal Reserve. That raised hopes that manufacturers were recovering from a slowdown in the early summer. A jump in auto production was a key reason for the increase.
Better growth also boosted hiring last month. Employers added 163,000 jobs in July, the most since February. Job gains averaged only 73,000 jobs a month from April through June, not enough to keep up with a rising population. The unemployment rate rose to 8.3 percent from 8.2 percent in June.
Most economists say stronger growth is needed to create enough jobs to lower unemployment. The economy grew at an annual rate of 1.5 percent from April through June, down from 2 percent in the first quarter and 4.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011.
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