The Labor Department reported Friday that a flurry of hiring in December pushed the unemployment rate to its lowest level in nearly three years.
Employers added a net of 200,000 jobs last month, dropping the jobless rate to 8.5%, the lowest since February 2009, and doubling the number of jobs added in November.
December marks the fourth consecutive monthly decline. For 2011, the economy added 1.6 million jobs, better than the 940,000 added in 2010. The unemployment rate averaged 8.9% last year, down from 9.6% in 2010.
The more robust employment picture coincides with other recent positive data. Weekly applications for unemployment benefits recently dropped to levels last seen more than three years ago. Holiday sales were widely considered to be strong. And, November and December were the strongest months of the year for U.S. auto sales.
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