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The government this week reported a better-than-expected decline of 7,000 in the number of Americans filing the first time for state unemployment benefits.

It was the third consecutive decline in the weekly number and the fourth in five weeks, unusual during a period when students head back to class and seasonal workers normally are laid off.The Labor Department said the number of initial jobless claims totaled a seasonally adjusted 320,000 in the week ended Sept. 17, the lowest in seven weeks. That was down from an unrevised 327,000 in the previous reporting period.

A decline of 7,000 might not usually be considered particularly large, but most economists were expecting an increase of about 13,000. Retail merchants and other businesses that boost their payrolls during the summer months traditionally lay off extra workers about the time school begins.

The Labor Department said its four-week moving average of initial claims was 327,500, down 750 from the previous week's unrevised average of 328,250.

The four-week average is the figure most watched by economists because it smooths out the bumps and dips seen in the weekly number and is considered a more accurate indicator of hiring trends.