The nation lost nearly 600,000 jobs last month, the worst showing in a third of a century, as a vicious cycle of cutbacks by consumers forced ever more layoffs by beleaguered employers.
The unemployment rate catapulted to 7.6 percent, the highest in 16 years, and seemed headed for double digits.
About 3.6 million positions have disappeared so far in the deepening downturn, which now ranks as the biggest job destroyer in the post-World War II period.
On Wall Street, investors optimistically assumed congressional action was on the way and pushed stock prices higher.
The Dow Jones industrials gained more than 217 points, and all broad stock indexes surged nearly 3 percent.
Battered by the recession, employers slashed a net 598,000 jobs in January, the most since 1974, the Labor Department reported Friday.
The jobless rate surged from 7.2 percent in December to 7.6 percent, and economists and government officials all agreed the toll was certain to go higher.
The jobs lost so far since the recession began in December 2007 are the most of any downturn in the post-war period. About half the losses occurred just in the past three months.
Layoffs this month are likely to be just as bad. And job seekers' prospects aren't likely to become noticeably better until 2011 -- at the earliest -- when job growth should return to a more healthy pace, analysts said.
Even if the recession were to end by fall -- a best-case scenario -- the economy and the job market would remain feeble for some time.
Economists predict anywhere from 2 million to 3 million or more jobs will disappear this year and the unemployment rate probably will climb to 10 percent or higher by the spring of 2010.