WASHINGTON—Unemployment rates fell in nearly 90 percent of large U.S. cities in March, though most of the declines likely occurred because more Americans stopped looking for work, rather than found jobs.

The Labor Department says unemployment rates fell in 333 of the 372 largest metro areas. They rose in 22 and were unchanged in 17.

Nationwide, the unemployment rate dipped to 7.6 percent in March from 7.7 percent in February. Fewer people said they were unemployed, but only because they gave up on their job hunts. The government only counts people as unemployed if they are actively looking for work.

Hiring slowed sharply. Employers added only 88,000 jobs in March, a steep drop from the average gains of 188,000 a month in the preceding six months.

Still, there were signs of long-term improvement in the metro unemployment data. Nearly 160 metro areas had unemployment rates of 7 percent or below, up from 113 a year earlier.

And while 44 cities still have unemployment rates of 10 percent or higher, that's down from 63 a year earlier.

The metro unemployment data isn't seasonally adjusted for trends like the hiring of extra retail employees over the winter holidays. As a result, it can be more volatile than the national data.

The metro area with the biggest decline in unemployment in March from February was Blacksburg-Christiansburg, Va., where the rate fell to 5.6 percent from 7 percent. It was followed by Florence-Muscle Shoals, Ala., where the rate fell to 6.


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4 percent from 7.7 percent.

The next biggest drops were in Panama City-Lynn Haven, Fla.; Myrtle Beach, S.C.; and Springfield, Ill.

The metro area with the biggest increase was Baton Rouge, La., where it rose to 5.8 percent from 5.5 percent. Next was Bowling Green, Ky., where the rate increased by almost the same proportion: to 7.8 percent from 7.4 percent.

They were followed by Lubbock, Texas; Lake Charles, La.; and Lawrence, Kan.

The lowest unemployment rate was in Midland, Texas, at 3.1 percent. Midland displaced Bismarck, N.D., which has frequently boasted the lowest rate in the nation, largely because of the oil and gas drilling boom in that state. Bismarck's rate was 3.6 percent.

Yuma, Ariz., and El Centro, Calif., had the highest unemployment rates, at 26 percent and 23.7 percent, respectively. The two areas are adjacent and include a large number of migrant farm workers.