WASHINGTON -- Americans' confidence in the economy jumped this month, helped by a better outlook for the job market and expectations for higher pay.
The Conference Board, a New York-based private research group, said Tuesday that its consumer confidence index rose to 68.1 in April. That's up from a reading of 61.9 in March, bringing the index back to its February level.
Contact information ( * required )
Consumers' confidence in the economy is watched closely because their spending accounts for about 70 percent of U.S. economic activity.
Despite several brief spikes, the confidence index remains well below the 90 reading that indicates a healthy economy -- a level it hasn't reached since the Great Recession began in December 2007.
The April gain in confidence was driven by greater expectations for growth in hiring and income over the next six months.
Confidence fell sharply in March, coinciding with a weak month of job creation. Employers added just 88,000 jobs in March, down than the previous four months when job growth averaged 220,000 a month.
But many economists say the slowdown was temporary and that hiring likely picked up this month. The Labor Department releases its April employment report Friday. Economists forecast that employers added 160,000 jobs.
Pay is also rising. A separate report from the Labor Department noted that wages and salaries rose 0.5 percent from January through March, up from the 0.3 percent gain in the previous quarter.
Higher income has helped offset an increase in Social Security taxes that took effect Jan. 1. The tax increase shrank take-home pay for a worker earning $50,000 a year by about $1,000. A household with two high-paid workers has up to $4,500 less.
More pay has led to greater spending. On Friday, the government said consumer spending rose from January through March at the fastest pace in more than two years.
Economists say the Social Security tax increase may slow consumer spending and economic growth in the April-June quarter.
Other trends, though, may counter the impact of the taxes this year. Consumers have cut their debts. And rising home values and stock prices have increased household wealth. The recovery in the housing market appears sustainable and is expected to gain momentum this year.
In addition, gasoline has become cheaper. The national average price for a gallon of gas has fallen 29 cents since Feb. 27 to $3.50. A decline in gas prices leaves consumers with more money to spend on other things.