The number of Americans lining up for new jobless benefits fell for a fourth consecutive week, the Labor Department said Thursday. Claims are now below pre-Sandy levels and near their lowest point in about four years.

In the week ending Dec. 8, applications for unemployment insurance payments declined by 29,000 to a seasonally adjusted 343,000. Initial claims from two weeks ago were revised up to 372,000 from an original reading of 370,000.

Economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters expected claims to come in at 370,000.

The four-week moving average, which normally provides a better indication of the underlying trend in labor markets than the weekly number of jobless claims, fell to 381,500, a decrease of 27,000 from the previous week's revised average of 408,500.

The number of people filing for benefits after an initial week of aid fell by 23,000 to 3.2 million in the week ending Dec. 1. The continuing claims figure does not include the number of Americans receiving extended benefits under federal programs.

Job gains are of great importance, because they lead to income growth, and that supports consumer spending, which accounts for more than 70 percent of the U.S. economy.

The unemployment rate fell from 7.9 percent to 7.7 percent in November, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last week, the lowest jobless rate in four years. The number of workers on nonfarm payrolls rose by 146,000 jobs -- better than Wall Street economists expected.