New worries about the economy gripped America Saturday after a government report showed no job growth last month amid sagging consumer confidence.
Economists raised new concerns about recession after the Labor Department said that private sector employment, previously the main engine for job growth as revenue-strapped governments shed workers, "changed little" in most major industries last month.
A meager 17,000 private-sector jobs were added, down from a revised 156,000 in July. But that was offset by 17,000 jobs shed by government.
"The job machine has ground to a halt," said Joel Naroff at Naroff Economic Advisors.
The report "clearly raises the specter that the US has already entered or is at least close to enter another recession," said Harm Bandholz at UniCredit.
It was the first time in 10 months the world's largest economy has not produced net growth in nonfarm payrolls.
"The stagnation in US payroll employment is an ominous sign," said Paul Ashworth, an economist at Capital Economics. "The broad message is that even if the US economy doesn't start to contract again, any expansion is going to be very, very modest and fall well short of what would be needed to drive the still elevated unemployment rate lower."
The Labor Department said the unemployment rate remained unchanged at 9.1 percent from July. It was the 28th month the jobless rate has been at 9.0 percent and above, except for two.
The number of unemployed people was essentially unchanged, at 14 million.
The jobs data for August were the worst since September 2010, when the economy destroyed more than twice the number of jobs it created. The pace of job growth remains far below the numbers needed to reduce the high unemployment rate.
"Wrangling in Congress and the eventual deficit deal underscored the inability of government to jump-start the labor market. Employers and consumers have lost confidence in the economy," said Sophia Koropecky at Moody's Analytics.
The report came amid political gridlock in Washington, as President Barack Obama's Democrats and their Republican foes battle over how to achieve long-term deficit reduction.
On Saturday, Obama urged divided Congress to pass a clean extension of the transportation bill, a measure that finances road construction and other infrastructure projects across the country.
"We need to pass this transportation bill and put people to work rebuilding America," Obama said in his weekly radio and Internet address.
The president warned that failure of Congress to act would be disastrous for the economy, costing nearly one million workers their jobs over the next year and almost $1 billion in highway funding after the first 10 days alone.
Confidence in the economy has taken a sharp hit as Americans watched politicians strike an 11th hour deal on August 2 to avert a sovereign debt default and Standard & Poor's downgraded the triple-A US credit rating for the first time in history.
The August employment data came ahead of Obama's much-awaited speech to a joint session of Congress next Thursday, in which he will lay out a plan to create jobs and stimulate the moribund economy, where growth fell below one percent in the first half of the year.
The 9.1 percent jobless rate is "a level that remains unacceptably high," Katharine Abraham, a member of the president's Council of Economic Advisors, said in a White House blog post.
Obama left the White House for a weekend at Camp David without commenting either on camera or on paper about the jobs number. He is due to give a speech on the economy on Monday, the Labor Day holiday, in the distressed hub of the auto industry, Detroit.
Other data in the August report were also troubling. The department sharply lowered its net new jobs for numbers June and July by a combined 58,000, and the average workweek and hourly earnings in the private sector declined.
Overall, the report raises the odds that the Federal Reserve's policymakers will announce fresh stimulus for the economy at a September 20-21 meeting, said Michael Gapen at Barclays Capital.
Sectors still adding jobs in August were health care, by 30,000, mining and professional and business services.
A two-week strike against Verizon Communications by about 45,000 employees subtracted from the payrolls number.
Governments continued to downsize their workforces, even after accounting for the return of about 22,000 workers from a partial state government shutdown in Minnesota, the department said.
Since employment peaked in September 2008, local governments have shed 550,000 jobs.