WASHINGTON (AFP) - Initial claims for US unemployment insurance benefits fell last week to the lowest level this year, the government said Thursday in a report signaling improvement in the troubled labor market. New jobless claims dropped to 439,000 in the week ending March 27, from a revised 445,000 in the prior week, the Labor Department said. That marked the second straight week of decline and was in line with the consensus analyst forecast of 440,000 new claims. Last weeks number was the lowest since the beginning of the year and matched that of the first week of February. The last time there was a smaller number of claims was in August 2008, before the collapse of Wall Street investment bank Lehman Brothers triggered a global financial meltdown. The report underscored a trend of slow stabilization in the jobs market, where unemployment is hovering near double digits. The four-week moving average of new claims, which smooths out weekly volatility, fell to 447,250 last week from the prior weeks revised average of 454,000. The numbers for all those receiving unemployment insurance held steady or improved in the week ending March 20. The unemployment rate was 3.6 percent, unchanged from the prior weeks unrevised rate. Those receiving insured unemployment benefits fell to 4,662,000, down from the preceding weeks revised 4,668,000. The four-week moving average was 4,679,500, a decrease of 12,500 from the preceding week. The weekly jobless claims data came on the eve of the Labor Departments highly anticipated monthly jobs data that could suggest the strength of the nations nascent recovery from the worst recession in decades. The department is expected to report Friday that March nonfarm payrolls rose 190,000, after a decline of 36,000 in February, and the unemployment rate held steady at 9.7 percent.