The gains have been enough to reassure Federal Reserve officials that the recovery remains on track, allowing them to gradually pull back on a bond-buying program meant to spur the economy. On Wednesday, the central bank's policy committee said it would reduce its monthly bond purchases to $55 billion in April from $85 billion last year.
"For some time, the level of unemployment claims has been consistent with an acceptable pace of job losses," said Stephen Stanley, chief economist at Pierpont Securities. "The root problem is that throughout the recovery, the economy has never been able to generate an explosive pace of hiring. And that remains the case."