Job growth picks up steam, unemployment drops

Mitt Romney will probably find today’s jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics very discouraging. The rest of us, though, have reason to smile.

The U.S. economy gained 200,000 jobs in December and the unemployment rate fell to 8.5%, the Labor Department said Friday. Economists surveyed by MarketWatch had forecast the U.S. would add 150,000 jobs last month, with the jobless rate edging up to 8.7% from an initially reported 8.6% in November.

As is always the case, there was a gap between the private and public sectors. Businesses added 212,000 jobs last month, while budget cuts forced the public sector to shed 12,000 jobs, which continues to be a major drag on the overall employment picture.

That said, when monthly job growth reaches 200,000, that’s genuinely good news, and the drop in the overall unemployment to 8.5% puts the figure at nearly a three-year low, which is also encouraging. Under the circumstances, this is one of the best jobs reports since the recession began four years ago.

In terms of revisions, the job numbers for October were slightly better than previously reported, and the totals for November were slightly worse. The result is largely a wash.

For the 2011 calendar year, BLS data shows the economy added 1.64 million jobs, which obviously isn’t even close to good enough, but it was still the strongest year for job creation since 2006. A total of 853,000 jobs have been created since July.

And with that, here’s the homemade chart I run on the first Friday of every month, showing monthly job losses since the start of the Great Recession. The image makes a distinction — red columns point to monthly job totals under the Bush administration, while blue columns point to job totals under the Obama administration.