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WASHINGTON — The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits fell to the lowest level in seven years last week, a sign the job market is steadily improving.

The Labor Department says weekly unemployment benefit applications dropped 24,000 to 297,000, the fewest since May 12, 2007. The four week average, a less volatile measure, dipped 2,000 to 323,250.

Applications are a proxy for layoffs, so the decline is evidence that employers are cutting fewer jobs. Weekly applications topped 650,000 in March 2009, during the past recession.

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