Unemployment is at its lowest level since President Obama took office in January 2009, offering him a political boost just days after his performance was widely judged as lackluster during a debate against GOP rival Mitt Romney.
The government said hourly wages were up and employees worked more hours in September, meaning they were taking home bigger checks. Overall, the ratio of the American population with a job reached its highest level since May 2010.
The drop in the unemployment rate was bolstered by revisions reflecting that employers had added 86,000 more jobs than previously known in July and August, recasting the troubling summer lull in job creation to a season of solid employment gains.
Although the report offered a brightening picture of the nation’s labor market, the overall rate of job creation remains less than robust. In addition, unemployment remains far above normal levels, and many millions who have jobs are not working full time.
“While the September employment report was more encouraging than the ones we have seen in recent months, the job market is still a long way from rosy, good health,” said Gary Burtless, a Brookings Institution economist.
This year, employers have added only slightly more jobs per month than are needed to keep pace with normal labor-force expansion, and slightly fewer than the 153,000 average monthly gain the nation experienced in 2011. Also, the number of Americans working part-time — even though they want full-time jobs — rose sharply last month to 8.6 million.
With economic growth creeping along after showing signs of more vigorous expansion last year, some economists were skeptical of the magnitude of September’s unemployment decline. A few even predicted that the jobless rate would tick up in the coming months.
“This was a pretty good report, but the drop in the unemployment rate was just too good to be true and probably overstates the degree of improvement in the job market,” said Stuart G. Hoffman, chief economist for PNC Financial Services Group.
Even at 7.8 percent, the joblessness rate remains high by any historical standard. And it could be years before the economy returns to full employment.
But Bernard Baumohl, chief global economist for the Economic Outlook Group, said the dichotomy between the recent steep decline in the jobless rate and the slow economic growth in recent months could mean that the economy is poised to take off.
Economic “growth may turn out to be stronger than most economists currently forecast,” he said. “ . . . Employers are, thus, cautiously turning more optimistic about the economy in 2013 and becoming less apprehensive about hiring.”