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US unemployment benefits drop 19,000 to 238,000

In this Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016, photo, Kenneth Bennett, left, talks with a recruiter from the Fire Department City of New York during a job fair hosted by the Gregory Jackson Center for Brownsville, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. On Thursday, May 4, 2017, the Labor Department reports on the number of people who applied for unemployment benefits a week earlier. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Fewer Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week after two weeks of small gains.

THE NUMBERS: The Labor Department says weekly jobless claims dropped by 19,000 to 238,000, the lowest level in three weeks. The less volatile four-week average edged up by 750 to 243,000. Overall, 1.96 million Americans are collecting unemployment benefits, down 8.1 percent from a year ago.

THE TAKEAWAY: Jobless claims are a proxy for layoffs. They have come in below 300,000 for 113 straight weeks, the longest stretch since 1970. The new report adds to evidence that the job market remains healthy.

KEY DRIVERS: Even though the overall economy was growing at a sluggish pace at the beginning of the year, the jobless rate fell to 4.5 percent in March, the lowest in nearly a decade. The government will report on job creation and the unemployment rate for April on Friday.

The economy grew at a lackluster 0.7 percent rate in the January-March quarter, down from a 2.1 percent rate in the fourth quarter. It was the weakest showing in three years but most analysts believe it was based on a combination of temporary factors that should lift in the April-June period, allowing the economy to rebound to stronger growth of around 3 percent.