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With unemployment now under 7% for the first time since November 2008, we can turn attention to what may be the first happy question we've asked about the economy in, well, forever: How soon can unemployment hit 6%?

This isn't the most common question this morning, since the Labor Department's first estimate of December job creation is just 74,000, down from a revised 241,000 for November. The unemployment rate fell to 6.7% from 7% largely because the labor force shrank.

The jobs number is inconsistent with other fourth-quarter data pointing to accelerating growth, including a report Wednesday by payroll processor ADP that private employers hired 238,000 workers in December. Somebody is wrong, and upcoming data will show who that is.

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Still, the answer to the 6% question is, maybe sooner than you think. What will it take? That most things about the economy stay the same, one or two big things go right in 2014, and that the 1.3 million workers affected by Congress' decision to let extended unemployment benefits lapse last month act the way economists expect. Here's how it might work.

First, just keep going the way it's going. Even with today's poor number, the 12-month average for new job creation is 182,000 a month, similar to 2011 and 2012.

It's well-established that this recent pace will bring down unemployment. The unemployment rate fell 0.7 percentage points in 2012, by 0.8 points in 2011 and even 0.6 points in 2010. This has happened with economic growth very shaky until recently, and with Washington staging growth-threatening budget showdowns in each of the past three years. It's also consistent with the 1980s Reagan recovery -- at a comparable stage in 1986, unemployment was 7.0% after peaking at 10.8% in 1982.

Next, pick up the pace a little. The economy has been growing about 2% a year, at least until a spate of strong fourth-quarter data began to come in, raising expectations for late-2013 growth. In an interview with Time magazine, Federal Reserve Chair-designate Janet Yellen said she hoped the economy would grow 3% next year. That would be likely to boost job creation at least a little.

One big boost that would help the economy get to 6% unemployment would be an acceleration in new home building. Forecasts vary, from a little over 1 million (which would be less than 10% better than 2013's expected pace) to as many as 1.3 million. Every new home built generates between 3 and 4.5 new jobs, depending on which economist's rule of thumb you use. Taking a guess near the middle of that range, another 200,000 homes and 700,000 jobs would, by itself, cut about 0.4 percentage points off the unemployment rate.

Third, watch what happens to the people who lost unemployment benefits.

Economists don't know much about exactly who lost their benefits beginning late last month. About 1.3 million people are affected. Speculation about how many of them will simply drop out of the labor force -- specifically, how many of them are older workers who will admit they are retired once they don't need to seek work to claim benefits -- is all over the lot. At the high end of estimates, Sterne Agee economist Lindsey Piegza thinks this effect (plus people taking jobs they would otherwise refuse) might shave 0.5 of a percentage point off the unemployment rate.

Add it up. If the economy keeps doing what it has done, unemployment gets to the low sixes in a year. If housing picks up, it gets a little lower, possibly to 6% by this December,

Federal Reserve policymakers predict 6.3% to 6.6% joblessness by late this year. There are no guarantees, especially if people who have left the labor force decide to return to job hunting. But this is how the way back to 6% looks, with a little luck and a statistical adjustment or two. One day of bad news may slow the pace -- a little -- but doesn't change the path.

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