The unemployment numbers come from a government survey of households. The number of jobs added comes from a separate survey of businesses.
A broader category that includes not only the unemployed but also part-time workers who want full-time jobs and people who have given up looking for work was unchanged in December at 22.7 million.
The government revised up its estimates of job growth for October and November by 14,000 jobs. October's job increases were revised down from 138,000 to 137,000 but November's were revised up from 146,000 to 161,000.
Economists said the pace of hiring almost certainly isn't strong enough to lead the Federal Reserve to cut short its bond-buying program. The Fed is spending $85 billion a month on bond purchases to try to drive down long-term borrowing costs and stimulate economic growth.
The job market is being held back by government cutbacks. Governments at all levels cut 13,000 jobs in December. Since the Great Recession ended in mid-2009, governments have eliminated 645,000 jobs — an average of nearly 15,400 a month.
By contrast, during the recoveries from the recessions of 1990-1991 and 2001, governments added an average of more than 15,000 jobs a month. If governments were hiring at that pace instead of slashing payrolls, the U.S economy would be generating more than 180,000 jobs a month.
Instead, for two full years, monthly job growth has remained stuck at a tepid pace: It averaged 153,000 in both 2011 and 2012. That isn't enough to lower unemployment to what economists regard as a "normal" rate of 6 percent or less. The Federal Reserve doesn't expect unemployment to drop that low until after 2015.
The economy has replaced just 4.8 million, or 54 percent, of the 8.8 million jobs lost between January 2008, when the job market peaked, and February 2010, when it bottomed during the recession. It has been, by far, the weakest jobs recovery since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
"A status quo report in today's labor market represents an ongoing jobs crisis," says Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the liberal Economic Policy Institute.
Still, the economy has been showing broad improvement. Layoffs are down. Banks are lending a bit more freely. Companies have built up a near-record $1.7 trillion in cash.
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