The last time South Carolina's unemployment rate was lower than the national jobless level was January 2001.

Until last month.

That makes Tuesday's report that the S.C. jobless rate fell to 6.6 percent in December, just under the national level of 6.7 percent, very welcome news.

It's also another sure sign that South Carolina's economy is on the rise.

Yes, statistics - including unemployment rates - can be misleading.

For instance, here's how the U.S. Labor Department calculates the official jobless rate: It divides the number of unemployed Americans whom the agency still counts as members of the labor force by the total number of people in the labor force.

So when a lot of jobless people are no longer counted as part of that labor force, that trend inevitably lowers the official jobless rate.

And after the economy crashed in August 2008, the percentage of Americans deemed part of that labor force - with or without jobs - began dropping to near-record lows.

That negative pattern persists nationally. Thus, the U.S. jobless rate's dip from 7.0 percent in November to 6.7 percent last month was due, in part, to an unexpectedly steep decrease of 347,000 in the overall labor force.

That ongoing decline has been driven in part by more retirements in an aging population. Yet it's also been driven by the sad, continuing phenomenon of millions of long-term unemployed Americans giving up on finding work.

However, the jobless - and jobs - numbers look much brighter in our state.

According to Tuesday's release from the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce, our state's overall labor force rose slightly last month, to 2.15 million - with the ranks of the employed growing by more than 10,500.

Soon 175 jobs in Clarendon County will be added to that number, as the result of a $4.3 million investment by Kent International Inc., to build bicycles for Walmart. According to the state Commerce Department, the facility will produce the first U.S.-made bicycles sold by the retail giant.

Kent is just the latest manufacturer to locate in the state's largely rural counties, where jobs are most needed.

Gov. Nikki Haley boasts that her administration's full-bore jobs initiative has been successful in bringing new employment to 45 of the state 46 counties.

Yes, too many South Carolinians who want to work still can't find it.

But the continuing fall in the unemployment rate - and the rise in the number of South Carolinians with jobs - offers welcome encouragement.

Meanwhile, that national unemployment rate of 6.7 percent still beats the heck out of the 10.0 percent Great Recession peak of October 2009.

And South Carolina's drop from a painful 11.9 percent jobless rate in November 2009 to 6.6 percent last month is a remarkable measure of Palmetto State prosperity revived.