The nation’s economy added 88,000 jobs in March, a figure far below expectations that is likely to trigger new doubts about the strength of the economy.

While the unemployment rate fell to 7.6 percent, that reflected 496,000 workers leaving the workforce, not a strengthening labor market. The 63.3 percent labor participation rate is the lowest since 1979.

Analysts had expected job gains near 200,000 in March.

The report released Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics is likely to renew a debate in Washington about the direction of the economy.