WASHINGTON -- For the first time since the beginning of the recession, economic growth -- modest and fragile, but growth nonetheless -- has spread to every corner of the country.
A survey released Wednesday found economic activity was improving across all 12 regions of the nation tracked by the Federal Reserve. It was the first clean sweep in the report since 2007.
Metal producers in Chicago and St. Louis cranked out more steel. Makers of drugs and medical equipment in the Northeast did better business. And sales of summer clothes were strong in fashion-conscious New York.
Still, the pace of growth in most parts of the country was described as modest. That's a sign that companies probably won't starting hiring again anytime soon in great enough numbers to bring down the unemployment rate.
''It's kind of like having more people sign up to run in the Boston Marathon but no one is running very fast,'' said Brian Bethune, economist at IHS Global Insight. ''You have more people in the race, but they are all running slowly.''
Fed chief Ben Bernanke sounded a similar note in testimony Wednesday before Congress, telling lawmakers that the economy will probably plod ahead in the coming months, producing limited growth.
Bernanke said the debt crisis in Europe, which has rattled the U.S. stock market since April, was unlikely to seriously harm the American recovery as long as Wall Street stabilizes.
He also predicted only a slow reduction in the unemployment rate, which stands at 9.7 percent, slightly lower than its quarter-century high.
The Fed's region-by-region survey, traditionally known as the Beige Book, provides a unique snapshot of the nation as viewed from what you might think of as the economic trenches.
The central bank's 12 regional arms have their people fan out to gather information from businesses and talk to local economists and experts on the markets. The result is a much more intimate look at the overall economy than broad statistics provide.
At the low point of the recession, all 12 regions reported shrinking economic activity.
This time around, the survey found that manufacturing was picking up, retail sales and housing were growing, and tourism was improving. Housing was helped by a tax credit for homebuyers that expired in April.
Commercial real estate, on the other hand, was weak, and the job market got only slightly better. And while shoppers spent more freely, they stayed focused on the necessities, not big-ticket buys.