(NewsNation) — America’s employers extended a streak of hiring in March, adding 431,000 jobs in a sign of the economy’s resilience and the highest inflation in 40 years.
The report Friday from the Labor Department showed that last month’s job growth helped reduce the unemployment rate to 3.6%, the lowest level since the pandemic erupted two years ago.
Despite the inflation surge, persistent supply bottlenecks, the damaging effects of COVID-19 and now a war in Europe, employers have added at least 400,000 jobs for 11 straight months.
This continues a trend of improving job numbers and dropping unemployment for the last few months, signaling a strong return from the COVID-19 downturn and a move back toward pre-pandemic prosperity.
Inflation may be starting to weaken consumer spending, the main driver of the economy. Americans increased their spending by just 0.2% in February, down from a much larger gain in January.
Still, the job market has continued to rebound with unexpected speed from the coronavirus recession. Job openings are at a near-record level, and applications for unemployment benefits have dropped to near their lowest point since 1969.
It’s unclear whether the economy can maintain its momentum of the past year. The government relief checks are gone. The Fed raised its benchmark short-term interest rate two weeks ago and will likely keep raising it well into next year. Those rate hikes will result in more expensive loans for many consumers and businesses.
Inflation has also eroded consumers’ spending power: Hourly pay, adjusted for higher consumer prices, fell 2.6% in February from a year earlier — the 11th straight month in which inflation has outpaced year-over-year wage growth. According to AAA, average gasoline prices, at $4.23 a gallon, are up a dizzying 47% from a year ago.
Prices at the pump were rising long before Russia invaded Ukraine and have spiraled faster since the start of the war. But it’s said that Americans vote with their wallets, and President Joe Biden is reacting to that with a new strategy meant to bring prices down.
Biden announced a plan Thursday to release a million barrels of oil a day from the country’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve in a bid to lower the skyrocketing oil prices.
“This is a wartime bridge,” Biden said. “The bottom line is if we want lower gas prices we need to have more oil supply right now.”
Biden blamed the root of high gas prices in the U.S. on the pandemic and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Putin’s price hike is hitting Americans at the pump,” he said. “Our (gas) prices are rising because of Putin’s actions. There isn’t enough supply.”
The latest Hill/Emerson College poll found that Biden’s approval rating is still underwater, at 47%. The poll also shows a plurality of those who responded blame Biden for the high gas prices (46%) compared to just 18% who blame Russian oil sanctions.