WASHINGTON -- The healthier job market that's lifted the economy in recent months shows no signs of slowing. Applications for unemployment aid are near a four-year low, raising expectations of further hiring gains.

More jobs and tame inflation are giving consumers more buying power. Their higher spending could further boost growth and lower the unemployment rate for February for a sixth straight month.

Even the troubled housing market is benefiting. Builders expect improved sales in the near future. In response, they're planning to break ground on more homes. "The housing starts and unemployment claims numbers add to the belief that the economy is shifting gears," said Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisers. "The decline in the unemployment rate is real, and it should continue."

Some say the net job gains could match or top January's. Employers added 243,000 net jobs in January, the most in nine months. In the past three months, the economy has produced an average of about 200,000 jobs.

Naroff said the unemployment rate, now at 8.3 percent, could drop below 8 percent by year's end.

An improving job market is crucial to the recovery. It boosts incomes, enabling consumers to spend more. Job growth has already helped boost car sales in the past three months.

If it continues, stronger hiring might also convince more people that it's a good time to buy a home -- a notion that many have resisted since the housing market went bust four years ago.