WASHINGTON – Applications for jobless benefits dropped last week for the third time in four weeks, a sign that employers are cutting fewer jobs.

New claims for jobless benefits fell by 16,000 to a seasonally adjusted 453,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. Still, they are higher than they would be in a healthy economy and not low enough to signal rapid job growth.

The claims figures are “mildly encouraging” and “moving in the right direction,” said Michael Gapen, senior U.S. economist at Barclays Capital. But they need to fall to between 400,000 and 425,000 to indicate that hiring is picking up, he said.

In a separate report, the Commerce Department said that economic growth slowed in the second quarter, to a 1.7 percent annual rate from 3.7 percent in the January-March quarter.

The second quarter figure is slightly higher than last month’s estimate of 1.6 percent. The modest rise was the result of a little more consumer spending than first estimated, but hardly enough to have a significant impact on the broader economy.

Most economists expect growth to be similarly weak in the July-September quarter, with estimates ranging between 1.5 percent and 2 percent. The government’s first report on third-quarter GDP will be released Oct. 29.

Mortgage rates fell this week, according to mortgage buyer Freddie Mac. The average rate for a 30-year fixed loan dropped to 4.32 percent, matching the lowest rate on records dating back to 1971.

Mortgage rates have been at or near the lowest levels in decades since the spring as investors poured money into the safety of Treasury bonds, lowering their yield. Mortgage rates tend to track those yields.

Jobless claims are at the same level they were two weeks ago. Initial claims have fluctuated around 450,000 for most of this year.

The four-week average of claims, a less-volatile measure, dropped for the fifth straight week to 458,000, the lowest level in two months.

Applications for unemployment benefits, while volatile, provide a real-time snapshot of the job market. The weekly claims figures are considered a measure of the pace of layoffs and an indication of companies’ willingness to hire.