APRIL SHOWS SURPRISINGLY STRONG JOB GROWTH…. With nearly all the recent economic news looking quite discouraging, expectations were low for the new monthly unemployment report. Nearly every estimate suggested the job market was getting worse, and that April would show a decline from previous months, dipping to about 185,000 jobs created.

It comes as something of a relief, then, that this morning’s report didn’t just greatly exceed expectations, it’s arguably the single best month for jobs since the Great Recession began in 2007.

The Labor Department says the economy added 244,000 jobs last month. Private employers shrugged off high gas prices and created 268,000 jobs — the most since February 2006.

The gains were widespread. Retailers, factories, financial companies, education and health care and even construction companies all added jobs. Federal, state and local governments cut jobs.

The unemployment rate ticked higher, from 8.8% to 9%, but as we’ve talked about before, that’s not the most reliable gauge. Indeed, as April’s report helps demonstrate, the unemployment rate can go up when more jobs are created, and go down when fewer jobs are created. It’s just quirky that way.

The number to watch is the total number of jobs created. And in this case, the economy added 244,000 jobs in April. That’s the third highest total since the recession started, and the single-best month when one excludes Census-related jobs. By most measures, this is the fastest job growth Americans have seen in five years.

Also note, the total would have been even higher had it not been for state and local budget cuts — the private sector added 268,000 jobs, but the public sector lost 24,000 jobs. Those were jobs that could have been saved were it not for conservative fiscal policies.

Nevertheless, this is the third good jobs report in as many months, and offers hope that the employment market is finally getting back on track. So far in 2011, the economy has added 768,000 jobs — and that just covers four months.

To be sure, to have robust growth that would bring the unemployment rate down in a hurry, we’d need to see even stronger employment numbers, but given the hole we’ve been in, what we’re looking for a significant steps in the right direction. That’s exactly the news we received today.

Just as encouraging, the totals from February and March were both significantly revised upwards.

From a purely political perspective, policymakers would ideally look at figures like these, and consider ways to keep the momentum going. Regrettably, congressional Republicans continue to fight for austerity measures that would reverse the progress on purpose. This morning’s report should offer Washington a big hint: if we want more good news, the GOP plan needs to be rejected.

Once again, 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.

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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.