Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke pleaded Thursday for more government action to relieve the foreclosure crisis and break a vicious cycle in which the housing meltdown is plunging the country deeper into recession.

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WASHINGTON — Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke pleaded Thursday for more government action to relieve the foreclosure crisis and break a vicious cycle in which the housing meltdown is plunging the country deeper into recession.

Beaten-down shoppers, meanwhile, handed retailers their worst month in at least 39 years. And the number of people drawing jobless benefits hit a 26-year high, with the November employment figures due out today likely to show more deep job cuts.

“We are probably at the absolute worst of the recession right now,” said Mark Vitner, economist at Wachovia.

With soaring foreclosures feeding the country’s economic woes, Bernanke called on the government to ratchet up efforts to help people at risk of losing their homes.

Despite steps already taken to try to ease the crisis, foreclosures remain “too high,” hurting homeowners, lenders and the broader economy, Bernanke told a Fed conference here on housing finance.

“More needs to be done,” he declared.

Lenders appear on track to initiate 2.25 million foreclosures this year, up from an average annual pace of less than 1 million before the crisis, he said.

“Weakness in the housing market has proved a serious drag on overall economic activity,” Bernanke said. “Steps that stabilize the housing market will help stabilize the economy as well.”

The fallout is forcing consumers to hibernate, and retailers have suffered the consequences.

Seattle-based department store-chain Nordstrom saw same-store sales decline 15.9 percent, although that was less than some analysts estimated.

Issaquah-based Costco Wholesale, usually a strong performer, reported a 5 percent decline, larger than the 2.4 percent drop analysts expected. Excluding the effect of lower gas prices and currency fluctuations, the wholesale club operator would have posted a 3 percent sales gain.

Zumiez, an Everett sports-apparel retailer, reported Wednesday that same-store sales for November fell 15 percent.

One notable exception from the largely grim sales results: Wal-Mart posted sales gains.

Overall, sales dropped 2.7 percent last month, according to one tally of retail activity, the Goldman Sachs-International Council of Shopping Centers index based on 37 stores. It was the worst showing since at least 1969, when the index began.

Consumer spending — which includes retail sales — accounts for about two-thirds of total economic activity. And job cuts, tanking investment portfolios and sinking home values have made U.S. consumers wary of spending.

Fresh information on layoffs, released by the Labor Department, showed the number of new applications for unemployment benefits dipped to 509,000 last week. Even with the drop, though, the figure was still at the highest level since December 1982.

With the economy sinking faster, companies are cutting more jobs. AT&T announced Thursday it will slash 12,000 jobs — or about 4 percent of its work force. And DuPont reported it will cut 2,500 positions.

On Wall Street, stocks tumbled amid growing anxiety about the November employment report. The Dow Jones industrial average lost 215 points, or 2.5 percent.

The unemployment rate, which bolted to a 14-year high of 6.5 percent in October, is expected to climb to 6.8 percent in November when the government releases new employment data this morning.

If the forecasts are correct, that would mark the highest jobless rate in 15 years. Employers, which have slashed 1.2 million jobs this year alone, probably will ax another 320,000, analysts say.