The national unemployment rate rose from 6.8 to 7.2 percent in December, according to data released Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor. The 2008 job losses reached 2.6 million -- with 1.9 jobs shed in only the last four months of the year. December payroll employment fell by 524,000, bringing the total four-month payroll employment down by 1.9 million. "The only major private industry sector that continued to add a significant number of jobs was health care," BLS commissioner Keith Hall said in a media statement Friday. "Employment in this industry rose by 32,000 over the month [of December] and by 372,000 over the past 12 months." In all of 2008, the jobless rate rose by 2.3 percentage points, and the number of unemployed increased by 3.6 million across all demographic groups, according to the economic data. The unemployment rate rose to 7.2 percent for adult men, to 5.9 percent for adult women, and to 6.6 for all whites in December. Unemployment rates remained essentially unchanged during the month for blacks -- at 11.9 percent unemployed -- and Hispanics -- at 9.2 percent unemployed -- according to the data. "The number of persons experiencing long spells of unemployment also has risen," the employment situation report's author wrote. According to the data, the number of "discouraged workers" -- those persons not actively seeking employment "because they believe no jobs are available" -- rose by 279,000 from a year earlier to a total of 642,000 in December. Read the report. Although the unemployment rate has climbed, claims for unemployment benefits have been declining in recent weeks. First-time applications for state unemployment benefits dropped 24,000 to a seasonally adjusted 467,000 in the week ending Jan. 3, the Labor Department said Thursday. This report marked the third consecutive week of declines, a trend that appeared to be foreshadowing an unexpected sign of stability in the economy, as Dow Jones Newswires expected claims would actually climb 63,000. With the data released Friday that shows the climbing unemployment, the appearance is now one of an increasingly unemployed sector with fewer individuals seeking benefits. It's unclear now whether these figures indicate lowered morale -- with unemployed persons simply giving up -- or a brightened outlook -- with unemployed persons declining to pursue collecting benefits because they see, perhaps, a bit of light at the end of the tunnel. Write to Diana Golobay at diana.golobay@housingwire.com.