WASHINGTON -- The jobs crisis isn't getting worse. But it isn't getting much better, either.
The economy added just enough jobs last month to ease fears of a new recession. But hiring is still too weak to bring down unemployment, which has been stuck at about 9 percent for more than two years.
The nation added 103,000 jobs in September, an improvement from the month before, the Labor Department said yesterday.
But the total includes 45,000 Verizon workers who were rehired after going on strike and were counted as job gains.
Even counting them, the gains weren't enough to get the economy going. About 125,000 jobs a month are required just to keep up with population growth.
For September, the unemployment rate stayed at 9.1 percent.
Aside from the information sector, which was boosted by the returning Verizon strikers, the strongest sectors were professional and business services, which added 48,000 jobs, with particular strength in computer systems design and technical consulting services.
The health-care industry added 44,000 jobs. In a pleasant surprise, the long-ailing construction sector added 26,000 jobs.
The biggest job loser was government, with 5,000 jobs cut by the U.S. Postal Service and 35,000 jobs slashed by local governments.
On one hand, the unemployment report was encouraging for economists. Some had feared the nation would lose jobs in September, raising the risk of a painful second recession. But everyday Americans can't take much solace from it.
The Great Recession has been over for almost 2 1/2 years, and although corporate profits and the stock market have bounced back, 14 million people are counted as unemployed in the United States. An additional 9.3 million are working part time and would rather work full time. And 2.5 million more have given up looking for a job.
Tom Porcelli, chief U.S. economist at RBC Capital Markets, said that although the September report was better than feared, it also showed the economy is not gaining much momentum. "It moves you away from the ledge," he said.
The White House pointed to the soft job-creation numbers as reason for Congress to either pass President Obama's $447 billion job creation plan or find an alternative that might help growth.
Gene Sperling, who heads the White House National Economic Council, said, "The jobs numbers were better than projected, but nowhere near the type of job growth we need to reduce unemployment and start getting the long-term unemployed back to work.
"Anyone who suggests that we should not take bold action on jobs immediately is essentially saying that projections of weak growth and over 9 percent unemployment are good enough for them. It's certainly not satisfactory for the President."
Congressional Republicans blamed failed White House leadership for the still-high unemployment rate.
House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) said the report "underscores the urgency for both parties to find common ground on common-sense solutions to create a better environment for private-sector job creation."
"Our unemployment rate has been higher than 8 percent for more than 2 1/2 years, far above what the Obama Administration promised with the 'stimulus,' " he said.
"For many groups, including teenagers, Hispanics, and African-Americans, the jobless rate is even higher. These sad numbers show that more Washington spending, threats of higher taxes on small businesses, and excessive government regulations don't create a healthy environment for job growth."
Adopting a combative tone as he waits for the Republicans to settle on a nominee to oppose him, Mr. Obama has challenged Congress to get behind his $447 billion jobs bill or risk being run out of Washington.
The Obama plan aims to jolt the economy by cutting taxes and increasing spending on schools, roads, and other public projects. The President has proposed paying for it in part by raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations.
Republican challengers are trying to convince voters that the President is to blame for high unemployment and the sluggish economy.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is running for the GOP nomination for president, told Fox News Channel yesterday that Mr. Obama is criticizing Congress simply because he is "looking for someone to blame."
The markets were underwhelmed by yesterday's report.
The Standard & Poor's 500-stock index fell less than 1 percent to 1,115.46, and the Dow Jones industrial average ended the day basically flat.
Although financial markets have been flashing signals that a recession could be imminent, or already under way, the September jobs report is consistent with other economic data that have suggested gradual economic expansion.
For example, key surveys on the manufacturing and services sectors released this week by the Institute for Supply Management both pointed to continued slow growth in September.
But the unemployment rate is likely to move up over time if the current rate of job creation is sustained. The nation has added 96,000 net new jobs a month over the past six months.
In a surprising development, the Federal Reserve said yesterday that the amount of consumer credit outstanding in the economy fell $9.5 billion in August, which followed 10 consecutive months of gains.
The decline could signal that consumers are becoming more cautious or lenders are cutting back on making loans available, or some combination.
The average workweek lengthened slightly and wages rose a bit.
More hiring and better pay could boost consumer spending, which drives about 70 percent of the economy.