The unemployment rate in the United States dropped sharply to 9.4 percent last month. This is its lowest level in more than a year and a half.

The Labor Department reported this morning that employers added 103,000 jobs in December, with an influx of 113,000 jobs from private employers. The government also reported that more people were hired in October and November than first estimated: 210,000 jobs in October, up from 172,000, and 71,000 in November, up from 39,000.

The Labor Department report comes amid generally brighter economic data in recent weeks. Factories have ramped up production, and the service sector is growing at its fastest pace in more than four years. Fewer people applied for unemployment benefits over the past month than in any other four-week period in more than two years. Consumer spending over the recent holiday was also robust.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke addressed members of the Senate Budget Committee this morning. He was generally upbeat, citing improvements in consumer spending and a drop in jobless claims as hopeful signs.

Mr. Bernanke said, “We have seen increased evidence that a self-sustaining recovery in consumer and business spending may be taking hold.” He added that he expected the pace of economic recovery to be moderately stronger in 2011 than it was in 2010.