JOBLESS CLIMBS, PACE SLOWS…. How awful has the recession been? So awful that a month with 539,000 job losses is considered an improvement.

The United States economy lost 539,000 jobs in April, the government reported on Friday, a sign that the relentless pace of job losses was starting to level off slightly. A year ago, the loss of more than half a million jobs in a single month would have seemed like a disaster for the economy. On Friday, experts were calling it an improvement.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the unemployment rate surged to 8.9 percent in April, its highest point in a generation. But some economists saw glimpses of a bottom in the latest grim accounting of job losses. The economy, while still bleeding hundreds of thousands of jobs, is starting to lose them at a slower pace, offering the latest hint that the recession is bottoming out.

Economists were expecting job losses of 600,000 in April, and predicted the unemployment rate would rise to 8.9 percent from 8.5 percent in March. That may not comfort the 13. 7 million unemployed people in the United States, but economists said the figures offered a rare signal that the labor market was not tumbling lower quite as fast.

The 539,000 job losses amounted to the best month for the U.S. economy since October — November through March featured monthly totals of 600,000 job losses or more.

Economists were expecting April totals to reach 620,000 job cuts, but the number was better thanks to what the AP described as “a burst of government hiring.”

The 8.9% unemployment rate climbs to 15.8% if we include those who are working part-time but want full-time employment, or those who’ve simply given up. This number, often referred to as the U6 measure, is now at its highest point since the government began keeping track in 1994.

In all, to date the U.S. has lost 5.7 million jobs since the start of the current recession in December 2007.

Update: Chart by way of the Washington Post.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.