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Janelle Jones, MA ’10, can safely say that she has been a problem solver for most of her 38 years. As an elementary school student in Ohio, she regularly completed math workbooks two years above her grade level. Now, she researches and analyzes complex work issues with the goal of coming up with solutions that create societal change. Jones is the first black woman to serve as chief economist at the US Department of Labor, ending her scheduled one-year term in President Joe Biden’s administration in January. As a senior adviser to the Secretary of Labor, she tackled policies and plans related to Biden’s executive order titled Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities through the federal government.




State of Illinois: Fall 2022




The 2021 order was signed as Jones took the position that matched his passion for helping the underrepresented and improving the lives of the underrepresented. She did this in her federal role by considering the impact of regulations and the specifics of policy enforcement, always mindful of racial equity.

The job was to advance proposed policies, including paid sick leave, worker protections on the job, and the $15 minimum wage. Data was key to every initiative, meaning Jones achieved the goal of applying her math skills while working to uplift others.

Jones proved her intelligence in third grade, which is when a shrewd teacher determined she was disruptive in class because she was bored. Her parents placed her in a magnetic school where she continued her advanced learning and remained passionate about math.

A keen student, Jones decided early in high school that she would attend Spelman College in Georgia. The historically black women’s liberal arts school appealed to her in part because of its ties to the first black astronaut, Mae Jemison, who took a college flag with her into space. Jones worked at NASA while graduating and planned to become an astronaut herself.

“My mom reminded me that I can’t even ride a roller coaster without getting sick,” Jones said with her contagious laugh, adding that it was positive that her parents were always brutally honest. The duo, Darnell and Michelle, remained her strongest supporters as she headed to Spelman on a STEM scholarship and earned a degree in math.

To earn the required social science credits, Jones took a course in economics. The professor encouraged her to become an economist, a path she found intriguing, but she needed a break first. “I didn’t want to study or write another paper or do another set of problems. I had been doing this non-stop for 15 years,” said Jones, who chose to be an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer after graduating. She worked in California for the National Service Program which works to alleviate poverty.

“I did all the things I never did as a math major, working at a family resource center doing community service. It was an amazing experience,” Jones said. She also chose to join the Peace Corps, but Jones also wanted to get a graduate degree. This dual desire led her to enroll in the Illinois State Peace Corps Coverdell Fellows Program through the University’s Stevenson Center.

The program targets individuals who have served in the Peace Corps or are preparing for assignment under the U.S. government’s international initiative. Jones studied on campus for a year before graduating in Peru. She worked there as a community development volunteer who helped support a small business and strengthen the local economy.

The experience convinced Jones she wanted a job using data to inform advocacy. She became a research associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. Working at the think tank cemented her interest in economic policy, particularly labor economics and specifically black workers. She focused on unemployment, unions and job quality.

This emphasis remained as Jones thrived in his career. She became an economist at the US Bureau of Economic Analysis, an analyst at the Economic Policy Institute, director of policy and research at the Hub Project, and managing director of policy and research at Groundwork Collaborative before joining the Department of Work. His research has been cited in national media, including The Economist, The Washington Post, The Examination of Black Political Economy, the new yorkerand Harper’s.

What Jones has learned is that the national economy is “a disaster of epic proportions.” She bluntly admits that it’s hard to stay positive when analyzing the data that shows just how struggling Americans are, especially black women.

Often we think about how we have this society and the need to build an economy. In reality, we should build society around the economy. How can we use the principles, stories and thoughts of economics to create a better society?

Janelle Jones

For example, Jones notes that black women experienced the largest drop in labor force participation during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, with 973,000 fewer employees in January 2021 compared to February 2020. losses in local and state government and recreation and hospitality have disproportionate impacts on black women’s employment,” she wrote in a U.S. Department of Labor blog in February 2021. “Black women represent nearly one in four workers in the public sector and one in eight in the leisure and hotel industry.

They have had the slowest job recovery after the pandemic, which continues to impact the country’s economy. Jones has a myriad of statistics to confirm that the United States is far from rebounding from the shutdowns and supply chain disruptions that occurred during the 2020 COVID-19 surge. studied the implications and the resulting difficulties, she is convinced that a paradigm shift is necessary.

“A lot of times we think about how we have this society and the need to build an economy. In reality, we should build society around economics,” Jones said. “How can we use the principles, stories and thoughts of economics to create a better society?”

She answers the question by explaining her “Best Black Women” approach to tackling complex economic issues. “Focusing relief and recovery policies on the needs of black women and other vulnerable workers will ensure an inclusive economy for all. This will mean involving these communities in the identification of needs, the development of policies, solutions and action.

Put into practice, the concept requires “addressing the long-standing history of racial discrimination in our economy – in wages, education, health care, housing and wealth creation – to ensure that everyone can access the resources and opportunities they need to thrive.”

It is equally important to embrace the reality that “the issue of fairness in this country is not solvable. We’ll never check it off the to-do list,” Jones said. “At the same time, we can be a generation of people who hope to be able to improve the situation of the people who accompany us and who follow us. It’s hard, but what is the alternative? We don’t try? Imagine if no one has tried.

She shared her passion and knowledge with students over the summer as a visiting scholar at the UCLA Anderson School of Management and now contemplates her next role working for a better future, knowing full well she is running a marathon. with the finish line not yet in sight.