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WASHINGTON – It takes more than a superstorm and a “fiscal cliff” to derail the U.S. job market.

Employers added 146,000 jobs in November and the unemployment rate dipped to 7.7 percent, a four-year low, the government said Friday.

Though modest, the job growth was encouraging because it defied disruptions from Superstorm Sandy and employers’ concerns about impending tax increases from the year-end fiscal cliff.

Analysts said the job market’s underlying strength suggests that if the White House and Congress can reach a budget deal to avoid the cliff, hiring and economic growth could accelerate next year.

A budget agreement would coincide with gains in key sectors of the economy: Builders are breaking ground on more homes, which should increase construction hiring. U.S. automakers just enjoyed their best sales month in nearly five years. And a resolution of the fiscal cliff could lead businesses to buy more industrial machinery and other heavy equipment. That would generate more manufacturing jobs.

“The ground is being prepared for faster growth,” said Nigel Gault, an economist at IHS Global Insight.

Superstorm Sandy, contrary to expectations, dampened job growth only minimally in November, the government said. Job gains were roughly the same as this year’s 150,000 monthly average, and the unemployment rate fell two-tenths of a percentage point to its lowest level since December 2008 – the month before Barack Obama took office as president.

That suggests that fears about the cliff haven’t led employers to cut staff, though they aren’t hiring aggressively, either. The economy must add roughly 300,000 jobs a month to quickly lower the unemployment rate.

Friday’s report included some discouraging signs. Employers added 49,000 fewer jobs in October and September combined than the government had initially estimated. Monthly job totals come from a survey of 140,000 companies and government agencies, which together employ about 1 in 3 nonfarm workers in the United States.

The unemployment rate, derived from a separate survey of households, fell because 229,000 people without jobs stopped looking for work last month and so were no longer counted as unemployed.

The household survey asks about 60,000 households whether the adults have jobs and whether those who don’t are looking for one. Those without a job who are seeking one are counted as unemployed. Those who aren’t looking aren’t counted as unemployed.

All told, 12 million people were unemployed in November, about 230,000 fewer than the previous month. That’s still many more than the 7.6 million who were out of work when the recession officially began in December 2007.

A broader gauge counts the unemployed, plus part-time workers who want full-time work and people who have given up looking for a job. That total added up to 22.7 million people in November, down from 23 million in October.

Investors appeared pleased with the report. The Dow Jones industrial average closed up 81 points.

For now, worries about the cliff have led some companies to cut back on purchases of heavy equipment. Consumers are also signaling concern. A survey of consumer sentiment fell sharply in December, economists noted, partly over worries that taxes could rise next year.

But a resolution of the cliff could accelerate job growth in the construction and manufacturing sectors. On average, they pay more than the retail and restaurant jobs that have helped drive hiring in recent months and tend to contribute more to economic growth.

Gault, the economist, is cautiously optimistic.

“The good news is not that the labor market is improving rapidly – it isn’t – but that employment growth is holding up despite all the fears over the fiscal cliff,” he said.

Many analysts thought Sandy would hold back job growth significantly in November because the storm forced restaurants, retailers and other businesses to close in late October and early November.

But the storm didn’t hurt job growth in a major way. In part, that’s because the storm struck Oct. 29, but as long as employees had returned to work by Thanksgiving week, the survey counted them as employed.

Yet there were signs that the storm disrupted some areas of the economy in November. Construction employment dropped 20,000, for example.

Retailers added 53,000 positions last month, a sharp gain that likely reflected holiday hiring. Auto manufacturers added nearly 10,000 jobs. But overall manufacturing jobs fell by 7,000, partly a result of 12,000 jobs lost in food production that likely reflected layoffs at Hostess Brands Inc.