Initial unemployment claims drop 22,000, to 391,000

Initial unemployment claims fell below the 400,000 mark for the week ending Feb. 19, dropping 22,000, to 391,000, the Labor Department reported Thursday.

The four-week moving average, intended to provide a more stable measure of the nation's unemployment situation, was also down to 402,000, a decrease of 16,500 from the previous week's average.

However, the claims still come in above the amount measured by the government for the week ending Feb. 5. That week, the Labor Department estimated just 385,000 claims.

The economic indicator has flirted with the 400,000 mark recently, sneaking below it only to exceed it again weeks later.

Government officials watching the economy are optimistic about the recovery, but the employment picture is expected to lag behind other aspects of that recovery. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has said repeatedly that he expects it will take several years before the unemployment rate returns to more normal levels.