Applications for unemployment benefits dropped last week to thelowest level in four years, reinforcing signs the U.S. labor marketis picking up.

Jobless claims decreased by 5,000 to 348,000 in the week endedMarch 17, the fewest since February 2008, Labor Department figuresshowed today in Washington. The median forecast of 46 economists ina Bloomberg News survey projected 350,000. The number of people onunemployment benefit rolls and those getting extended payments alsofell.

Dismissals have been waning and reports show companies arebecoming more willing to expand workforces amid evidence sales areimproving. Employment growth will help spur consumer spending,which accounts for about 70 percent of the economy.

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