By Martin Crutsinger
WASHINGTON (AP) - The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits edged up slightly last week but remained at a level consistent with modest gains in hiring.
Unemployment benefit applications rose by 2,000 to a seasonally adjusted 366,000, the Labor Department said. The less volatile four-week average fell by 5,500 to 363,750. That was the lowest level since late March.
Employers added 163,000 jobs in July, the most since February. Job gains averaged only 73,000 jobs a month from April through June, not enough to keep up with a rising population. The unemployment rate blipped up to 8.3 percent, from 8.2 percent.
Americans boosted their retail spending in July by the most in five months, according to the Commerce Department. That suggests some are more confidence in the economy.
And factory output also rose in July for the second straight month, according to the Federal Reserve. A large jump in auto production drove the increase.
Slower growth in consumer spending was the main reason growth slowed in the April-June quarter to an annual rate of 1.5 percent, down from 2 percent in the January-March quarter and 4.1 percent in the final three months of 2011.
Most economists say stronger growth is necessary to create enough jobs to lower unemployment.
The economy faces other challenges that may weigh further on growth.
Europe's financial crisis is expected to slow U.S. exports to that region, a direct strike against U.S. manufacturers. The 17 nations that use the euro saw their economies shrink, as a group, in the April-June quarter.
The U.S. may drive off a "fiscal cliff" at the end of this year as well. That's when a slate of tax cuts expire and big spending cuts are scheduled to kick in. If those changes aren't altered or delayed, recession is a very real possibility.
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