The US labor market was far weaker than expected in March, with the economy adding only 88,000 jobs, a third of the number in February, according to official data released Friday.
Job creation slumped to its weakest level since June 2012, and was well below the 192,000 jobs that analysts had expected. The total number of unemployed persons was little changed at 11.7 million.
The unemployment rate dipped to 7.6 percent from 7.7 percent in February as more people dropped out of the workforce, the Labor Department reported.
The March jobless rate was the lowest since December 2008. Most analysts had expected it would hold unchanged at 7.7 percent.
Job gains were revised higher in the prior two months. The February gain was revised up to 268,000 from an initial estimate of 236,000, and the January gain was lifted to 148,000 from 119,000.
Over the prior 12 months, job gains on average totaled 169,000 per month.
The private sector, which has been the sole jobs engine amid strained government budgets, added only 95,000 jobs last month, down from 254,000 in February.
Federal, state and local governments shed 7,000 jobs.
The participation rate, a measure of the number of people employed or actively seeking work, fell by 0.2 to 63.3 percent, its weakest level since 1979.
The decline reflected the lingering sluggishness in the labor market almost four years after the Great Recession ended.
The tepid economy, which grew a mere 0.4 percent in the 2012 fourth quarter, is too weak to generate a significant turnaround in the jobs market.
Businesses appeared reluctant to hire in the face of sluggish growth and after the federal government's $85 billion a month "sequester" spending cuts kicked in on March 1.
The drastic spending cuts through September -- a result of political gridlock in Washington on budget deficit reduction -- were expected to shave at least a half percentage point off economic growth.
"The weak March is particularly discouraging given the inevitable impact on the economy from the sequester," said Sophia Koropeckyj of Moody's Analytics.
"However, the recovery is on much better footing this year than in the last few springs and the recovery in the housing market will do much to support growth," she said.
The analyst predicted housing-related employment directly and indirectly would account for two-thirds of all private-sector job gains during the next three years.