“Transforming Spaces” is a series about women driving change in sometimes unexpected places.
It takes approximately 30 seconds of conversation with Janelle Jones, the chief economist and policy director of one of the largest labor unions in the United States, to learn where she’s from and why it matters.
“I’m from Ohio! Is that not obvious?” she exclaimed, at a decibel level that reflects how core the state is to her identity. Lorain, Ohio, to be exact, where her mother and her mother’s mother (and aunts, uncles and cousins) worked in the local Ford plant.
Those union jobs, and the upward mobility they provided to millions of Black people who migrated from the South in search of freedom and opportunity, taught Ms. Jones what it means to move from the margins to the middle class. She noticed the difference when her mother switched to making Econoline vans after years serving Happy Meals at McDonald’s — a business that her current employer, the Service Employees International Union, is in a long-running battle to unionize.
Now she is fighting to make more jobs as good as the union jobs that supported her family — or, even better, jobs with new safeguards that protect workers’ physical health.
“It is a town where one of the best jobs you can have is to work at Ford,” Ms. Jones, 39, said of Lorain. “And while I love that for a lot of the people I know, it’s not the only way a town of 70,000 should be able to have economic security.”
Last year, Ms. Jones left the U.S. Labor Department, where she served as chief economist, for the Service Employees International Union, which represents nearly two million security guards, nurses, teachers, airport workers and janitors. About two-thirds of the members are women, and more than half are people of color. That’s why the position seemed tailor made for the philosophy she’d developed and advanced over her entire career — that targeting policies to assist some of the most disadvantaged members of society will lift everyone else up in the process.
Ms. Jones’s superpower, according to her colleagues, is her ability to translate the economy into a framework that helps workers.
For the past several years, Ms. Jones has been developing one central philosophy: Because Black women have historically been concentrated in low-paid caregiving jobs, which are often excluded from labor laws and benefits like Social Security, they have accumulated less wealth and experienced worse health outcomes. Furthermore, Ms. Jones argues, helping Black women — through measures like raising wages in care professions and canceling more student debt — is the best way to construct an economy that functions better for everyone.
In 2020, she gave her narrative a name, “Black Women Best.” She came up with it while working for a progressive nonprofit called Groundwork Collaborative, which conducted focus groups across the country to find a narrative about how the economy should work for working people.
“They were like, ‘I would like to not be tired,’” Ms. Jones recalled of the participants. “‘I want to buy school supplies.’ ‘I want to know that if my car breaks down, because I think it might, I won’t lose my apartment.’” Solving those basic problems for people with the least resources, she thought, would buoy the labor market from the bottom up.
Her premise, which she articulated in a working paper for the Roosevelt Institute, a left-leaning think tank, found an eager audience under President Biden, who owed his victory in large part to Black women. It was embraced by influential figures, including corporate economists and a Federal Reserve president, and formed the basis of a 133-page report commissioned by the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls.
It hasn’t escaped pushback: Some scholars, including Tommy J. Curry at the University of Edinburgh, counter that Black men are more disadvantaged than Black women. Dr. Curry, a professor specializing in Africana philosophy and Black male studies at the university, said that, while he understands the “political popularity” of Ms. Jones’s theory, the evidence did not back it up. Black women, he said, “have seen higher levels of labor participation, entrepreneurial endeavors supported by government grants, and higher rates of college degree attainment since the 2000s, while Black men have been shown to have greater unemployment, less earnings per dollar — at 51 cents by some measures — and an overall downward mobility.”
Ms. Jones declined to respond to Dr. Curry’s critique, but emphasized that her policy recommendations are generally not a zero-sum game.
“I do think that, in a really short period of time, she’s been able to get traction because people do see it as an additive vision,” said Angela Hanks, who worked with Ms. Jones at Groundwork and is now the chief of programs at the think tank Demos. “In a world where there aren’t a ton of totally new ideas, it’s a new idea. And one that’s resonant because it’s explicit but not exclusionary.”
While few concrete policy changes are the result of one person’s efforts, it’s possible to see Ms. Jones’s message in actions as small as a guaranteed income program for Black mothers in Mississippi (now in its fourth round of funding) and as large as the expanded child tax credit and unemployment insurance provisions in the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. Both federal policies helped low-income people in service professions, where Black women are overrepresented.
“What Black Women Best is pushing us to do is to center those who have always been described as ‘deserving’ of their economic hardship,” said Azza Altiraifi, a senior policy manager at the racial justice advocacy group Liberation in a Generation. “Those sorts of stories were not common before. And it’s not because there weren’t people doing that research — it just didn’t seem to be a worthwhile exploration.”
Ms. Jones’s path to influencing policy wasn’t a straight line. After majoring in math at Spelman, a historically Black college for women, she started two different Ph.D. programs and dropped out each time, after finding them to be only glancingly useful for the real work she wanted to do.
“I felt like economics was the way I could do something for my grandmother, who was on a fixed income, or do something for my cousin, who’s a home health aide,” Ms. Jones said, explaining why she called off her pursuit of a doctorate. “I thought it was going to be labor economics, the things that I love, and it wasn’t. It was like advanced real analysis. It was honestly awful.”
Fortunately for Ms. Jones, Washington is littered with Ph.D. dropouts who found policymaking more motivating than academic credentials. She spent years training with economists at the city’s labor-oriented think tanks. When Mr. Biden’s transition team went looking for a chief economist at the Department of Labor, in the wake of nationwide protests for racial equity in early 2020, she was an obvious choice — and became the first Black woman to hold the position.
Working for Labor Secretary Martin J. Walsh, Ms. Jones found, was a unique opportunity to put her ideas into practice. She was charged with carrying out the president’s executive order on advancing racial equity, which instructed each agency to determine how it could eliminate barriers for minorities. Ms. Jones dug in, finding ways to make sure people of color got their share of procurement dollars, unemployment insurance, apprenticeships, jobs at the department, fair performance reviews and everything else that the Labor Department had to offer.
Through it all, she argued that the economy hadn’t recovered until everyone was doing well. At times she even had to make that case inside the 17,000-person department, where some of her colleagues didn’t realize that the Black unemployment rate is almost always about twice as high as the white unemployment rate. Other times she had to make that case publicly, in regular videos breaking down the latest jobs report, for the better part of the year she worked at the Labor Department.
While the average unemployment rate sank back to its prepandemic level in 2022, the racial gap remained wide. “It took forever — forever — for Black women to recover to even 2018 levels,” Ms. Jones said. She took this message to Twitter, sometimes using memes. In 2021, she didn’t hide her disappointment when the Senate backed off of legislation that came right out of the Black Women Best playbook — including beefed-up subsidies for child and elder care — in the face of opposition from Senator Joe Manchin III, the West Virginia Democrat.
Mr. Walsh, who recently stepped down as labor secretary, said that Ms. Jones kept him focused on the idea that the prepandemic status quo wasn’t good enough.
“Janelle brought her brilliant economic mind, passion for building an accessible, equitable economy for all, and leadership to the Department of Labor at a critical time of transformation in the American economy,” Mr. Walsh said in an email, “insisting that this country’s workers — especially those usually left behind — remain at the forefront of the national policy response to tremendous upheaval.”
Ultimately, Black men and women made strong gains as the pandemic waned, in part because in 2021 the Federal Reserve held off on raising interest rates for months in an attempt to cool off the economy, even as prices started to escalate. Raising interest rates makes businesses less willing to expand and often results in layoffs, which tend to hit people of color first. Ms. Jones, who now speaks for millions of union workers, had argued that a tight labor market would reduce racial inequality.
“I care about all workers, obviously, but I really, really care about Black and brown women,” Ms. Jones said. “And to be in a place where those workers are centered, where it’s most of our members — it feels like the perfect place to do the things that make me excited.”