In a one-bedroom apartment above a Washington neighborhood of bars, clubs and brunch spots, Janelle Jones is busy trying to fix the U.S. labor market — one economic report and one Mario Kart race at a time.
The Biden administration appointed the 36-year-old as the Department of Labor’s chief economist, a little-known position that will influence the futures of millions of people. In between wading through endless spreadsheets, enduring hours of video meetings and analyzing reams of economic data, she picks up the video-game controller to clear her head.
The first Black woman in the job, Jones is the economist for America’s workers at a time when 10 million are jobless and entire industries are hollowed out by the pandemic recession. Raised in Ohio’s Rust Belt, graduating from college amid the 2008 financial crisis and now in Washington’s circle of power, she has intimate knowledge of the U.S. economy’s complex strata.
“There’s a lot of work to be done to make sure that we don’t just restore workers to where they were in January 2020 or four years ago,” Jones said by phone from her loft, where she works remotely during the pandemic. “We’ve seen workers take a huge hit over the past generation.”
Covid-19 exposed a crisis brewing for decades in the U.S. labor market, the engine of the economy. Even in the record 128-month expansion that ended a year ago, wages stagnated despite rising productivity, company profits and living costs. Union membership, a redoubt for workers, declined as precarious gig work boomed.
In the pandemic, American income inequality, already worst among peer nations, continued to widen: Most of the 20 million vanished jobs in Covid’s first month were low-wage service positions at restaurants, shops and hotels. The astronomical rise in the wealth of the richest continued even as remaining workers were expected to punch in for the same minimum wage.
“We are about to see an entirely new perspective,” said Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman, co-founder of the Sadie Collective, a Washington nonprofit that supports Black women in economics. She knows Jones’s work well. “I have hope, because she’s the kind of person that understands that economic recovery for some is not economic recovery for all.”
For more than a decade in government and research organizations, Jones has focused on finding out why Black people were falling behind in the labor market. She coined the phrase “Black Women Best” to drive home the idea that if policies are crafted to help this historically disadvantaged group, they would help all workers.
“When I see that it’ll take four to five years for the economy to return to full employment, what I’m thinking is that it’ll take Black workers 10 or 12 years,” Jones said. “My role here will be to think about those sorts of things, to give a lens to union workers, low-wage workers, different types of workers who aren’t usually centered.”
Women have historically been underrepresented in economics. And Black women fill only about 1% of jobs in the profession. The Biden administration has named several to high-level jobs: Cecilia Rouse would be the first Black leader of the Council of Economic Advisers; Angela Hanks is counselor to the labor secretary; Joelle Gamble is special assistant to the president for economic policy; and Lisa Cook is a potential candidate for the Federal Reserve Board of Governors.
Most support social safety nets, a higher minimum wage and favor marginalized workers over business interests. That’s garnered criticism from economists and Republican policy makers who argue that faster growth and higher profits encourage hiring.
It’s a classic debate of fiscal conservatives against those who argue for protections and support for Americans at whatever cost. Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package is a prime battle ground, with even moderate Democrats balking at the price tag and provision for $15 hourly minimum wage.
Larry Summers, an economist who was part of two previous Democratic administrations, said that the package brings “big risks” of inflation. But Groundwork Collaborative, a think tank where Jones led research before joining the administration, is pushing for a $4 trillion relief bill.
Republicans, largely sidelined from the debate but almost uniformly opposed to Biden’s plan, say targeted funds are more effective.
While Jones is entering public service as assumptions about the U.S. economy are being questioned, she brings a light touch to a bitter debate. She tweets about conversations with her mother and thoughts on MC Hammer — along with unemployment statistics.
Born in North Dakota and raised in Lorain, Ohio, a city of about 60,000 on the outskirts of Cleveland, she gravitated to numbers early. Her father, Darnell Jones, brought home a math book from Kmart when Jones was in third grade and she finished it in two days. He purchased a more advanced one and she whizzed through that, too.
“She has a crazy work ethic. She’s just driven,” said Darnell Jones, an Air Force veteran and retired air traffic controller.
At 13, Jones saw firsthand how economic class works in America, when her mother got a job with Ford Motor Co. and joined a union after years of working the counter at McDonald’s and Dairy Queen.
“It was night and day,” said Jones, whose mother still works at the plant in Avon, attaching brackets to three different trucks for 10 hours a day, four days a week. “Seeing not just her wages increase, but seeing the stability and what that did for her as a parent. She became more involved in all the things I did after school. It really taught me that a job is so much more than wages.”
Jones’s own first job was waiting tables at a pizza parlor for $2.13 an hour plus tips, “the same minimum wage that we have today,” she said.
She left Ohio for Spelman College, a historically Black women’s school in Atlanta. A professor there pushed her into economics, and introduced her to other Black analysts. After graduating, Jones volunteered for a year with a nonprofit in Sacramento through AmeriCorps, driving 40 hours across the country in her red Mazda 3.
Jones went to Illinois State University for her masters in applied economics, finishing it in Lunahuaná, Peru, where she volunteered for two years with the Peace Corps, working with artisans to market and sell their goods, and teaching English.
That’s also where she landed her first Washington job, as a research associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, after driving several hours to Lima to get “the good internet” for an interview on Skype. She spent more than a decade at think tanks, including the Economic Policy Institute and Groundwork Collaborative.
“There are a lot of people like Janelle in Washington who have technical skills and policy experience, but there are very few who have the kind of vision that she has and an amazing ability for framing,” said John Schmitt, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute. “She’ll walk into a situation and immediately see what the core issue is.”
Some peers want to ensure she gets the chance not only to identify those issues, but to address them.
“You worry with an administration coming in and saying, ‘We care about race,’ but they don’t back it up with people or policies,” said Olugbenga Ajilore, an economist recently appointed as a senior adviser at the Agriculture Department who’s joined Jones on panels. “We’ll see what happens with policies, but so far it’s backed up with people. That’s what’s exciting: People like her hopefully being able to call the shots, being able to push.”
Jones said she’s ready to exert that force.
“I can be a little fearless,” she said. “From the time I was born, my parents and family have just looked at me like, ‘You can do whatever you put your mind to.’”