Christopher S. Rugaber

WASHINGTON: Unemployment rates fell last month in most U.S. states, including in some hit hardest during the recession.

The Labor Department said Friday that unemployment rates declined in 29 states and rose in 8. Rates were unchanged in 13 states and Washington, D.C. The improvement was broader last month: rates fell in 45 states in January.

Still, job growth was more widespread than in previous months. Employers added jobs in 42 states, the most in almost a year. Ohio, Texas and New York reported the biggest job gains.

Nationwide, the economy added 227,000 net jobs in February and has averaged 245,000 jobs per month since December. Thatís helped lower the unemployment to 8.3 percent, the lowest level in three years.

The economy is expanding only modestly. But economists expect the stronger job market will help lift growth later this year.

And fresh data released Friday suggest that may already be happening. Consumer spending rose 0.8 percent in February, the Commerce Department said. Thatís the best gain in seven months.

Even some of the worst-hit states are seeing progress. Michiganís unemployment rate fell to 8.8 percent in February. Thatís down from a peak of 14.2 percent in August 2009. Many there are benefiting from the recovery in the auto industry, which has boosted job creation.

The rebound in auto sales has also helped South Carolina, where Mercedes and BMW both have manufacturing plants. The stateís unemployment rate fell to 9.1 percent in February from 11.5 percent a year earlier. South Carolina has gained jobs in manufacturing, leisure and hospitality, and education and health care.

Many of the states hit hardest by the housing bust are also showing signs of health. Floridaís unemployment rate has fallen to 9.4 percent from 10.8 percent a year earlier. Californiaís rate is still painfully high at 10.9 percent. But it has dropped from 12 percent a year ago, a sign of progress.

Nevada has the nationís highest unemployment rate, at 12.3 percent. The state lost 12,800 jobs last month, the most of all states. That was also the biggest percentage job loss of any state.

Rhode Islandís unemployment was the second highest, at 11 percent, up slightly from the previous month. Its rate hasnít improved much, declining only 0.3 percentage points in the past year.

North Dakota continued to report the lowest unemployment rate, at 3.1 percent, followed by Nebraska, at 4 percent.