New applications for unemployment benefits plunged to 238,000 in the last week of April, the Department of Labor reported Thursday, well below the 246,000 expected by forecasters.

Even better, the Labor Department's release revealed that the total number of people receiving unemployment benefits, which are available for up to 26 weeks in most states, fell to 1.96 million, the lowest level in 17 years.

Over the past month, the average number of total continuing claims was 1.99 million, a number not seen since late 1988, when Ronald Reagan was still president and the workforce was much smaller.

Low jobless claims are a good sign, because they indicate that layoffs are infrequent. Thursday's report will reassure investors and government officials about last week's jump in claims up to 257,000. Rather than being a sign of a worsening jobs market, it now seems more likely that the bad week was attributable to the Easter holiday distorting the Labor Department's seasonal adjustments.

In part because of the recent low jobless claim numbers, economists have relatively high expectations for the April jobs report, set for publication Friday. Around 185,000 new jobs are expected, after March's disappointing 98,000 figure. That would be easily enough to keep unemployment trending down.

Economists calculate that jobless claims below the 300,000 mark signal continued net job growth.