WASHINGTON – The U.S. economy grew unevenly in early fall, with more than half the regions of the country expanding modestly while others struggled to grow.

A survey by the Federal Reserve released Wednesday found that seven of the Fed’s 12 regions reported moderate improvements in business activity. Three regions — Philadelphia, Richmond and Cleveland — described economic activity as mixed or steady. Only two — Atlanta and Dallas — suggested economic growth was slow.

The survey indicated that the economy isn’t weakening but is growing too sluggishly to drive down high unemployment, now at 9.6 percent. The jobless rate has been at or above 9.5 percent for more than a year.

“Hiring remains limited, with many firms reluctant to add to permanent payrolls given economic softness,” the Fed survey concluded.

High unemployment is one of the Fed’s biggest concerns. That’s why Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and his colleagues are widely expected to launch a new program at their Nov. 2-3 meeting to bolster the economy. The Fed is expected to buy Treasury bonds in a bid to drive down interest rates on mortgages, corporate loans and other debt. The hope is that cheaper credit will persuade Americans to increase spending, which would help the economy grow and lead companies to hire more workers.

The Fed’s survey, known as the Beige Book, will figure into Fed policymakers’ discussions at the November meeting about how the economy is faring.

The region-by-region survey is based on information collected from the Fed’s 12 regional banks on or before Oct. 8.

“The overall read wasn’t as depressing as it could have been,” said Jennifer Lee, economist at BMO Capital Markets. “Does it change the outlook on growth or the Fed? Nope. But it does continue to suggest that growth continues around the country — not contraction,” she said, referring to a slide back into recession.