WASHINGTON — The job market has barely improved since January, making 2010 a lost year for the millions who are out of work.
The number of people applying for jobless benefits and the high unemployment rate have essentially been static in that time, the latest data show.
It's a bleak picture for Democrats, who could lose control of Congress in three weeks. Numerous polls show voters blame President Obama and his party for the slow economic recovery and the 9.6 percent unemployment rate — not much better than the 9.7 percent rate when the year began.
A sluggish economy has made employers reluctant to hire. Most economists don't expect much improvement until late next year. Some say conditions could worsen, and the jobless rate could drift back up to 10 percent this spring.
"I don't expect to see really strong employment growth... until the second half of next year," said Gus Faucher, an economist at Moody's Analytics.
The most recent blow came Thursday when the Labor Department said applications for unemployment benefits rose by 13,000 to a seasonally adjusted 462,000 — the first increase in three weeks.
Jobless claims had been drifting downward since mid-August, when they hit a high point for the year of 504,000.
Still, weekly applications have fallen by only 8,000 since January and have been stuck near 450,000 all year. Last year they fell steadily, from about 600,000 when the recession ended in June 2009 to 454,000 by the end of December.
Last week's increase led a flurry of government data on the economy. A jump in imports widened the trade deficit in August by 8.8 percent to $46.3 billion, the Commerce Department said. The gap was driven by demand for foreign-made semiconductors, generators and other types of industrial machinery. Exports edged up a slight 0.2 percent.
Wholesale prices remained tame, outside of a spike in the cost of food and energy, the Labor Department said in a separate report.
Businesses are reluctant to raise the prices they charge retailers because demand for goods is low and unemployment is expected to stay high for some time.
Some employers are still laying off workers. Insurance conglomerate Aon said Thursday that it will cut 1,500 to 1,800 jobs over the next three years as it consolidates its acquisition of Hewitt Associates, a human resources firm. Sanofi-Aventis, the world's fourth-largest drug maker, said last week that it is eliminating 1,700 jobs in its U.S. pharmaceutical business due to growing generic competition.
Even those companies that are seeing improvement are trying to keep costs down with fewer workers. Rail operator CSX said Wednesday that it can lengthen its trains to handle rising shipments, reducing its need to add employees.
Many businesses say they want a better idea of the political landscape and its impact on tax policy before committing to new hires. Congress is expected to debate an extension of the Bush-era tax cuts after the election in a so-called "lame-duck session." An extension of the tax cuts could give many chief executives and business owners more confidence in the economy.
Republicans support extending all the tax cuts. An overwhelming victory on Nov. 2 would increase their leverage with the administration, which supports extending some tax cuts but wants to let those affecting the most wealthy Americans expire.
The biggest uncertainly remains the strength of the economy itself. Many economists forecast it will grow by a 1.5 to 2 percent annual rate for the rest of the year.
"This is the worst downturn they've ever been through," Faucher said, referring to corporate CEOs. "They're going to be very reluctant to hire until they're sure that economic growth can be sustained."