WASHINGTON (AP) -- Fewer Americans sought unemployment aid last week, reducing the average number of weekly applications last month to a five-year low. The drop shows that fewer layoffs are strengthening the job market.

The Labor Department said Thursday that applications fell 10,000 to a seasonally adjusted 332,000. That reduced the four-week average to 346,750, the lowest since the week of March 8, 2008, three months after the Great Recession began.

The report "provides further evidence of a gradual strengthening in labor market conditions," Paul Dales, senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics, said in a note to clients.

Investors appeared to view the report as further evidence that job growth and the economy are strengthening. The Dow Jones industrial average rose 64 points in mid-day trading, and the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index neared its all-time high.

Applications for unemployment aid are a proxy for layoffs, and their steady decline signals that companies are laying off fewer and fewer workers. It suggests that companies aren't worried that business might fall off in the near future.

The number of applications for benefits has dropped five times in the past six weeks and has declined 13 percent since mid-November. At the same time, net hiring has picked up. Employers added an average of 200,000 jobs a month from November through February --up from about 150,000 a month in the previous four months.


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During the Great Recession, layoffs spiked, and applications for unemployment benefits peaked at 667,000 in the week that ended March 28, 2009. In a healthy economy, applications usually fluctuate between 300,000 and 350,000.