U.S. unemployment rate falls to 8.8 percent

WASHINGTON - (AP) - The U.S. unemployment rate fell to a two-year low of 8.8 percent in March and companies added workers at the fastest two-month pace since before the recession began.

The Labor Department says the economy added 216,000 new jobs last month, offsetting layoffs a local governments. Factories, retailers, education, health care and an array of professional and financial services expanded payrolls.

Private employers, the backbone of the economy, drove nearly all of the gains. They added 230,000 jobs last month, on top of 240,000 in February. It was the first time private hiring topped 200,000 in back-to-back months since 2006 - more than a year before the recession started.

The unemployment rate dipped from 8.9 percent in February to 8.8 percent in March. The rate has fallen a full percentage point over the last four months, the sharpest drop since 1983.

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