RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina's unemployment rate increased slightly in July, bringing out the politicians who blame each other for the fact that close to half a million people in the state don't have jobs.

The rate increased to 9.6 percent in July from 9.4 percent in June, where it had been steady for three months. It's the first increase since July of last year and ties North Carolina with South Carolina for the 5th-highest unemployment rate in the country.

The rate is based on a household survey, while another survey of businesses provides more detail on why people don't have jobs. That second survey shows that the private sector gained 16,000 jobs, which was offset by the loss of almost 14,000 government jobs.

"The thing that stands out to me is the way private-sector employment is increasing slowly, and the big drag on state employment continues to be state and local government," said Andrew Brod, economist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Legislative Republicans take credit for the increase in private sector jobs, saying policies of the GOP-led General Assembly are responsible. As for the loss of government jobs, Jordan Shaw, spokesman for House Speaker Thom Tillis, said lawmakers had to "right-size state government" to balance the budget. Some of the jobs were lost on paper only, he said, because they weren't filled at the time they were cut.

Meanwhile, the Republican candidate for governor criticized the current Democratic governor for the unemployment increase.

"Under the Perdue-Dalton economy, North Carolina has now had 43 straight months of 9 percent unemployment," the campaign for the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Pat McCrory, said in a statement.

The campaign for the Democratic candidate, Walter Dalton, had this to say: "For the last two years, we've operated under budgets that the Republicans forced into law and their devastating cuts to economic development and their educator layoffs have set back our fragile recovery. Through it all, Pat McCrory has been their biggest cheerleader."

Hold on, said one economist. The figures aren't as dire as they appear.

"I know the headlines will be 'unemployment rate up,'" said N.C. State University economist Mike Walden. "If you go into the details, the situation is much less negative than it appears."

He pointed to the additional 5,900 jobs in the leisure and hospitality services as one sign of an improving economy. "As the economy has modestly improved, and it has, we're seeing those jobs come back as more people are feeling they can spend a little more on entertainment and vacation," he said.

The state also gained 3,400 manufacturing jobs. "The fact that manufacturing is one of the leaders in employment growth should be heartwarming and encouraging to a lot of North Carolinians," Brod said.

Brod was less enthusiastic about the figures overall than Walden, calling the increase troubling but adding that it's risky to read too much into the one-month increase. "The big takeaway is the household survey is a little bit negative," he said. The business survey results "are not good either" because they show flat growth, he said.

North Carolina's rate is still lower than the 10.7 percent unemployment rate in July 2011 but higher again than the national average of 8.3 percent.

The state Commerce Department says the number of employed people decreased by almost 14,000 to about 4.2 million over the month but increased by about 49,000 over the past year. Initial claims for unemployment insurance totaled more than 64,000, increasing by almost 18,000 from June. Almost 445,000 people were unemployed in North Carolina in July.


Martha Waggoner can be reached at http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc