updated 3/31/2005 9:00:27 AM ET 2005-03-31T14:00:27

Americans’ incomes, bolstered by strong gains in hiring, rose by 0.3 percent in February while consumer spending climbed at an even faster pace of 0.5 percent, the government reported Thursday.

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The Commerce Department said the gain in spending followed a much smaller 0.1 percent increase in January and reflected the fact that auto sales rebounded last month after having fallen in January.

The 0.3 percent rise in incomes was attributed to a surge of 262,000 new jobs in February, the biggest increase in four months. Further solid gains in both incomes and consumer spending are expected in the months ahead as the consumer continues to be a driving force in the economy.

In a second report, the Labor Department said that the number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits rose by 20,000 to 350,000 last week. It was the highest level in 11 weeks. However, the four-week moving average for claims rose by a more modest 8,500 to 336,000 last week, a level still low enough to signal continued job creation in the economy.

Analysts are expecting another strong gain in employment of around 220,000 jobs when the March jobs performance is reported on Friday.

Starting with the recession in 2001, the country suffered through two years of outright declines in employment and then weak job growth in 2003. However, job gains accelerated last year, pushing employment up by more than 2 million workers, an increase that analysts expect to be matched this year.

The economic rebound was fueled by four rounds of tax cuts promoted by President Bush and easy credit from the Federal Reserve. With the impact of the tax cuts waning and the Fed now raising interest rates to make sure that the reviving economy does not fuel unwanted inflation, analysts believe that economic growth will moderate somewhat this year.

For all of 2004, the economy grew by 4.4 percent, including a 3.8 percent growth rate in the final three months of the year. Analysts believe the economy in the first three months of this year probably grew at a 4 percent rate.

The 0.3 percent increase in incomes in February followed two months of huge swings. Incomes had soared by 3.7 percent in December, reflecting a one-time $32 billion dividend payment to stockholders by computer software giant Microsoft Corp., only to drop by 2.5 percent in January. Without the dividend payment, incomes would have grown by 0.6 percent in December and 0.4 percent in January.

Disposable income, the amount left over after taxes, grew by 0.3 percent in February. The personal savings rate as a percentage of disposable income dipped slightly to 0.6 percent in February compared to 0.8 percent in January.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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