WASHINGTON (AP) -- The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment aid barely changed last week, while the average over the past month fell to a fresh five-year low. The decline in layoffs is helping strengthen the job market.
Weekly unemployment benefit applications rose just 2,000 to a seasonally adjusted 336,000, the Labor Department said Thursday.
Over the past four weeks, the average number of applications has dropped by 7,500 to 339,750. That's the lowest since February 2008, just three months into the recession.
Separately, sales of previously occupied homes rose last month to their highest level in more than three years, the National Association of Realtors said Thursday. And a measure of future U.S. economic growth increased in February for the third straight month, according to the Conference Board, a business research group.
The three reports Thursday supported other recent data that show the economy is improving after stalling at the end of last year.
Economists pay close attention to the four-week average of applications because it can smooth out week to week fluctuations. The steady decline in unemployment claims signals that companies are laying off fewer workers.
"Improvement in labor market conditions continues," Julia Coronado, an economist at BNP Paribas, said in a note to clients.
Applications spiked in the recession as companies slashed millions of workers from their payrolls.
It's taken more than three years to unwind those increases. Applications fell to 459,000 in 2010, 409,000 in 2011, and finally down to 375,000 last year. In the first 10 weeks of this year they are averaging just below 350,000.
Fewer layoffs have helped boost job gains in recent months. Employers have added an average of 200,000 jobs per month since November. That's nearly double the average from last spring.
And in February, the unemployment rate fell to a four-year low of 7.7 percent.