The U.S. economy added more than 900,000 jobs last month. For most White House officials, that would be considered a banner number. For Janelle Jones, the top economist at the Labor Department, there is much more work for the Biden administration to do.
Jones, the first Black woman to ever hold her position, says it would take a year of similar jobs reports just to get back to where the economy was before the pandemic. But even then, she says, getting back to the status quo is not enough.
"I'm not really going to be satisfied if we return the economy to February 2020," Jones told NPR. "I think we can do better than that. I think we can return the economy to a time when wages were growing for workers, when bargaining was strong, when we saw benefits really increasing."
From her perch at the Labor Department, Jones is one of the Biden administration officials facing the enormous task of addressing historic economic disparities that have only intensified during the global pandemic — in particular for communities of color. At a time when the economy is showing signs of rebound, the focus for Jones is how to ensure those gains reach everyone.
A focus on racial inequality
As a graduate of Spelman College, the historically Black women's college, Jones has spent much of her career focused on racial inequality. Before joining the Biden administration, Jones was a managing director at the Groundwork Collaborative, an economic think tank focused on pushing progressive policies.
During her work, Jones coined the phrase "Black Women Best" as a way to gauge the health of the economy through the lens of whether Black women and other marginalized groups are thriving.
"I'm a Black woman. I center Black women in a lot of my thinking. But I think you can really apply this to all types of groups that we usually don't center. We can think about indigenous women, Latinx women, workers with disabilities, non-native speakers, LGBTQ individuals."
The idea is that if those groups are doing well, then that means the entire economy is prospering.
Jones stressed that this philosophy is not about putting one group above another, but instead about making sure that people are not left behind.
"The trolls on Twitter would say things like, 'You just want Black women to be rich and then everyone else to be poor.' ... That's definitely not what I mean. Also, that's not the way the system is currently structured. It's impossible for that to happen," Jones said.
The infrastructure bill
As part of President Biden's agenda to create more jobs, the White House is now pushing a $2 trillion bill that focuses on traditional infrastructure, as well as a number of items aimed at addressing historic racial injustices.
Jones said measures like increasing help for communities dissected by highway construction and replacing lead pipes are the types of actions that could help alleviate long-term disparities.
But the plan is already facing push back from Republicans, and even some Democrats, who say the White House proposal is too broad and expensive.
The latest job numbers illustrate the stark challenge that the administration faces. While the overall jobless rate dropped to 6% in March, unemployment only fell to 7.9% for Latinos and 9.6% for African Americans.
"If the overall unemployment rate was 9.6% for all workers, we would be running around with our heads on fire. That is crisis levels of unemployment," Jones said.
Even when the economy was booming during the Trump administration and jobless rates hit historic lows, Black unemployment remained at about twice the rate of white unemployment.
Jones pointed out that even though the economy was growing for years, Black women did not see their employment rates recover from the Great Recession until 2018.
"So it wasn't a recovery for Black women," Jones said. "It wasn't the longest expansion for Black women. They were still suffering from recessionary conditions. And I think that's really what we want to keep an eye on right now."