WASHINGTON – The U.S. job market is flagging, and consumer prices are barely rising.

The picture sketched by data released Thursday made some economists predict the Federal Reserve will announce some new step next week to boost the economy.

Applications for unemployment benefits rose last week, pointing to a fourth straight month of sluggish hiring in June. And consumer prices were pulled down in May by a plunge in gas prices.

Weak job growth raises pressure on the Fed because part of its mission is to boost employment. And mild inflation gives policymakers more leeway to act. If inflation were threatening to accelerate, Fed policymakers might feel compelled to raise interest rates.

The Fed’s policymaking committee meets on June 19-20. Rising expectations that it will take some action sent stocks surging Thursday. The Dow Jones industrial average jumped 90 points in afternoon trading.

Fed officials are “likely to go into that meeting feeling a little chastened and looking for a way to support the economy,” said Jeremy Lawson, an economist at BNP Paribas.

The most likely step next week would be for the Fed to extend a current program that swaps short-term Treasury securities for bonds with longer maturities.

The program expires at the end of the month.

Known as “Operation Twist,” the goal is to further lower long-term interest rates to encourage borrowing and spending.

Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial, said allowing the program to end could result in tighter credit and make it harder for Americans to buy or refinance homes.

The reason: a key part of the program is buying new mortgage-backed securities with the proceeds from those that mature. Without those purchases, banks might issue fewer mortgages.

Earlier this year, it seemed less likely that the Fed would extend Operation Twist. Employers created an average of 252,000 jobs a month from December through February. Consumers were growing confident in the economy and spending at the fastest pace in more than a year.