Jobless claimsAfter a string of disappointing reports, employment made some modest progress in the week ending July 3. Initial jobless claims fell by 21,000 to 454,000, the U.S. Labor Department announced Thursday.

That's somewhat better than a Bloomberg survey, which pegged claims falling to 465,000, had expected. The more-telling four-week moving average -- which smooths out anomalies for holidays, strikes and other one-time events -- decreased 1,250 to 466,000.

New jobless claims need to drop below 400,000 during the next two quarters to give economists and investors confidence that commercial activity is increasing at a pace that prompts companies to curtail layoffs, and resume hiring.

Another encouraging data point concerned continuing claims, which plunged 224,000 to 4.41 million, although that's partly attributable to the expiration of benefits for many long-term unemployed.

More Fuel for the Employment Debate

States also reported 4.15 million people claiming Emergency Unemployment Compensation benefits for the week ending June 19, the latest week for which data is available, a decrease of 367,948 from the prior week.

The highest insured unemployment rates in the week ending June 19, the latest week for which data is available, were in: Puerto Rico, 6.7%; Oregon, 4.9%; Alaska, 4.8%; Pennsylvania, 4.7%; and Nevada, 4.5%.

The most recent jobless claims data will likely reinvigorate the debate between the economic bulls and bears. The former will point to the roughly 20% decline in initial jobless claims from June 2009, when they totaled 604,000. And the latter will argue that the 604,000 figure was an abnormally high, financial-crisis-induced level and that jobless claims are roughly unchanged from the start of the year, having meandered around the 450,000 level for the last two months.

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