WASHINGTON — Nonfarm payrolls rose less than economists expected in December, expanding by 103,000 workers as the unemployment rate dropped to a 19-month low, the Labor Department reported Friday.

The jobless rate fell to 9.4% from 9.8% in November. However, economists said the decline was largely due to discouraged workers giving up on finding new work, rather than the creation of new jobs.

The median estimate in a Thomson Reuters survey of economists predicted payrolls would increase by 125,000 jobs and the jobless rate would dip to 9.7%.

The economy needs to create 115,000 to 125,000 jobs each month just to make room for new workers joining the national labor force for the first time, according to Anthony Chan, chief economist for JPMorgan Private Wealth Management.

The December shortfall in new jobs was partially offset by upward revisions to the November and October payrolls, which added a combined 70,000 jobs.

“Today’s employment data does very little to change our view that the economy is regaining momentum, but the tide is not strong enough to lift all boats,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial. “I would expect to see more robust gains in hiring in the first quarter of this year, but what counts for robust in this recovery would be considered anemic almost any other time.”

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