Unemployed at 6 million

WASHINGTON - The number of people receiving unemployment benefits exceeded 6 million last week for the first time on record, the government reported yesterday. Also, it said, housing construction plunged to its second-lowest level on record.

The two reports were fresh evidence that the recession, now 16 months old, is far from over.

Still, economists found some silver linings. For the second straight week, the number of people filing new benefits claims dropped more than expected, and single-family home construction, while depressed, appears to be leveling off.

In the jobs report, the Labor Department said its tally of initial unemployment claims - that is, those filed by workers just laid off - dropped to a seasonally adjusted 610,000 in the week ended April 11 from a revised 663,000 the previous week. That was significantly below analysts' expectations of 655,000 and the lowest level of new claims since late January.

But finding a job is difficult for those already laid off. The total number of people remaining on the jobless-benefit rolls rose 172,000 to 6.02 million. That is the highest on record dating from 1967. The number for continuing claims was for the week ended April 4, one week earlier than the new-claims data.

Separately, the Commerce Department said the start of construction of new homes and apartments dropped 10.8 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 510,000 units, the second-lowest pace on records that go back 50 years.

The decline was worse than economists expected, and February activity also was revised lower. Applications for building permits, considered a good barometer of future activity, also fell in March to an annual rate of 513,000 units, lower than the 550,000 economists expected.

But the single-family sector actually stabilized in March at an annual rate of 358,000 units, the same as February. Two months of stability could signal that single-family home building is finding at bottom, although at a very low level, analysts said. The volatile apartment sector was the big loser - down 29 percent in March.