WASHINGTON (AP) -- U.S. job growth slumped in April for a second straight month. It pointed to a steadily growing but still sluggish economy that could tighten the presidential race.
A drop in the unemployment rate wasn't a necessarily a healthy sign for the job market. The rate fell from 8.2 percent in March to 8.1 percent in April. But that was mainly because more people gave up looking for work.
People who aren't looking for jobs aren't counted as unemployed.
The 115,000 jobs added in April were fewer than the 154,000 jobs created in March, a number the government revised up from its first report a month ago of 120,000. It also marked a sharp decline from December through February, when the economy averaged 252,000 jobs per month.
The percentage of adults working or looking for work has fallen to its lowest level in more than 30 years. Many have become discouraged about their prospects.
Here's what The Associated Press' reporters are finding:
TEPID ECONOMY, TEPID HIRING
Over time, strong economic growth is needed to fuel strong job growth.
But early this year, hiring accelerated much faster than economic growth did. Job gains averaged 229,000 in the first three months of 2012. But the economy grew at an annual rate of just 2.2 percent.
That led economists to wonder: Would growth increase and catch up with hiring? Or would hiring slow to match economic growth (as measured by gross domestic product, or GDP)?
Some economists say April's disappointing job gains suggests an unfortunate answer:
"It now appears that jobs have decelerated into line with GDP, rather than GDP accelerating to catch up with jobs," said Nigel Gault, an economist at IHS Global Insight.
The job market seems to look better with hindsight. The government's Bureau of Labor Statistics has revised job growth upward for 10 straight months -- and for 18 of the past 21. Over the past 10 months, it's added a cumulative 413,000 jobs to the original estimates.
The job figures are revised twice. They're updated in the two months after they first come out. And they're revised again in an annual update that's meant to capture updated employment information from the states.
History shows that the government's updated job totals typically follow the trend: When the economy is creating jobs consistently, the revisions tend to be positive. Months of job losses tend to lead to negative revisions.
THE POLITICAL DEBATE
A falling unemployment rate would seem to be good news for President Barack Obama's re-election hopes. Dating to 1956, no incumbent president has lost when unemployment fell in the two years leading to an election. On Election Day, unemployment will almost certainly be lower than it was two years earlier: 9.8 percent in November 2010.
But for the past two months, the rate has fallen for the wrong reason: More than 500,000 Americans have stopped looking for jobs and are longer be counted as unemployed. Job growth averaged a healthy 252,000 from December through February. It slowed to 135,000 a month in March and April.
The question is whether voters will focus more on the falling unemployment rate (good for Obama) or on the modest job growth (not so good).
A JAB FROM ROMNEY
Mitt Romney seized on the latter. He noted that the declining number of people seeking jobs explains the drop in the unemployment rate.
"This is way off from what should be happening in a normal recovery," Romney said on Fox & Friends. "You have more people dropping out of the work force than you have getting jobs."
"This is not progress," Romney said.
The percentage of Americans 16 and older who are working or looking for work fell to 63.6 percent, the lowest since 1981. For men, the so-called "labor force participation rate" is at 70 percent. That's the lowest since the government started keeping records in 1948.
The rate peaked at 67.3 percent in early 2000 as women poured into the workplace. Since then, it's fallen. Demographic and social trends help explain the drop: Baby boomers are aging and retiring.
And more women, especially those in upper-income families, are staying at home. The drop accelerated after the economy slid into recession in late 2007, leading many to give up looking for jobs.
The stock market didn't take the news well.
The Dow Jones industrial average sank 129 points, or nearly 1 percent, in mid-morning trading. The broader Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 1.2 percent.
Earlier this week, the Dow reached its highest close since December 2007.
Technology stocks and banks led the market lower Friday. Utility companies were the only broad category of stock in the S&P 500 trading higher. They tend to do well when investors are nervous about the economy.
A LONG WAY TO GO
The United States has regained only 43 percent of the 8.78 million jobs lost from February 2008 to January 2010.
So far this year, the economy has generated 201,000 jobs a month. At that rate, it would take until May 2014 to restore employment to its 2008 peak of 138 million.
Of course, the population has grown since then. So it could take even longer to lower the unemployment rate to its 2008 level.
Associated Press writers Martin Crutsinger and Kasie Hunt contributed to this report.