The U.S. economy added 216,000 nonfarm payroll jobs in March and unemployment inched down to 8.8%, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said Friday. The gains topped most analysts' estimates and most occurred in health care, leisure, hospitality, business services and mining. In all, the number of unemployed Americans totaled 13.5 million in March. For the past three years, the lackluster job market has been blamed for stalling the housing recovery. Analysts surveyed by expected an increase of 1750,000 jobs for March. The consensus figure from an Econoday survey forecast 200,000 new jobs with a range of estimates between 150,000 and 310,000. On Wednesday, Automatic Data Processing reported private-sector jobs growth of 201,000. And it appears job cuts are beginning to slow in the private sector, with employers in March reducing payrolls by only 41,528 jobs, an 18% drop when compared to the cuts reported in February, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas. The March job cuts figure is down 39% from a year ago, the data firm said. As the private sector improves, government job cuts rose to their highest level in 12 months, Challenger, Gray & Christmas said. Overall, employers implemented 130,749 job cuts in the first quarter, down 28% from the first quarter of 2010. "Despite the decline from last year, it is difficult to be optimistic about the outlook for government workers," said Rick Cobb, executive vice president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. "Most cities and states have only just begun to address their massive budget deficits and we have yet to see how budget cutbacks are going to impact workers at the federal level." Write to Kerri Panchuk.