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The U.S. unemployment rate fell to its lowest level in more than two years in November, according to preliminary data released on Friday by the U.S. Department of Labor.

The rate – which is perhaps the most watched economic indicator in the country – fell from 9 percent to 8.6 percent, its lowest level since March of 2009. Meanwhile the underemployment rate – a broader, more accurate measure of joblessness – fell from 16.2 to 15.6 percent.

On the surface that’s obviously a positive number, but the fundamentals of the American job market remain weak. In fact the jobless rate – which the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama pledged would remain below 8 percent thanks to the passage of its so-called “stimulus” – has remained above that mark since February of 2009.

That 33-month streak of elevated joblessness is the longest since the U.S. Department of Labor began tracking the unemployment rate in 1948.

And while the creation of 120,000 jobs was good news – it’s still below the level necessary to keep up with an expanding population Also, the big driver of November’s decline was the 315,000 people who dropped out of the labor force. Not only that, more than half of the monthly employment gains came from retail and temporary help agencies – indicating a seasonal bump that’s likely to fade in 2012.

In fact, last month the Federal Reserve downgraded its 2012 employment outlook – which originally called for unemployment to drop to the 7.8 to 8.2 percent range toward the end of the year. Now the Fed says the rate will stay around 8.5 to 8.7 percent.

The U.S. economy created just 1.1 million jobs in 2010 – or roughly 94,000 jobs per month. That’s nowhere near enough job growth to keep up with an expanding population – to say nothing of replacing the 8 million jobs that were lost during the recession. Analysts estimate that the economy must create roughly 130,000 jobs each month simply to keep pace with population growth – a figure that it has hit just once in the past seven months.

Here in South Carolina, the unemployment rate currently stands at 10.5 percent – down from 11.1 percent earlier this year. Unfortunately, the main driver of its most recent reduction was an increase in government jobs. The state’s underemployment rate stands at 18.4 percent.