The number of people continuing to receive unemployment aid dropped to 5.36 million in the week ended Dec. 22, the most recent data available. That's down about 50,000 from the previous week.

Still, hiring is too weak to rapidly reduce the number of unemployed, which stands at 12.2 million. That's far higher than the 7.6 million who were out of work when the Great Recession began in December 2007.

There are signs the economy is improving. The once-battered housing market is recovering, which should lead to more construction jobs in the coming months. A gauge of U.S. service firms' business activity expanded in December by the most in nearly a year. Auto sales for 2012 were the best in five years. And Americans spent more at the end of the crucial holiday shopping season.

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