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Biden Economist Plans To Tackle Economic Disparities Caused By COVID-19

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The pandemic worsened economic equality. So what does the Biden administration plan to do about it? NPR's Ayesha Rascoe talked with Janelle Jones, the chief economist at the Labor Department and the first Black woman to hold that job.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Employers added more than 900,000 jobs last month. That's a banner number for any administration, and the unemployment rate dropped to 6%. But Janelle Jones, the first Black woman to serve as the top economist for the Labor Department, says you have to dig further into those numbers.

JANELLE JONES: Whenever someone tells me a headline number or tells me the economy is doing really well, my immediate follow-up question is, for who? And who is being left behind and who is not included?

RASCOE: The answer, as it has been for years, is a lot of the country that is not white or male. With the growth in vaccinations, businesses like restaurants and hotels are making more money and hiring more people. Jones says that's good news for Black and Latino women who are overrepresented in the leisure and hospitality sector. Still, unemployment only fell to 7.9% for Latinos and 9.6% percent for African Americans.

JONES: If the overall unemployment rate was 9.6% for all workers, we would be running around with, like, our heads on fire. That is crisis levels of unemployment.

RASCOE: And Jones says that even a return to pre-pandemic jobless levels will not be good enough for many people. During the Trump administration, the low unemployment that preceded the pandemic was promoted as a top accomplishment. Here's former President Trump in his farewell address.

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DONALD TRUMP: We reignited America's job creation and achieved record low unemployment for African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, women - almost everyone.

RASCOE: But even at those historic levels, African American unemployment was still about double white unemployment. For Jones, those sorts of details are significant.

JONES: For years, we talked about how the economy was growing. It was the longest expansion on record. Everything was great. Black women didn't recover their unemployment rates until 2018 - right? - so it wasn't a recovery for Black women.

RASCOE: Jones is a graduate of Spelman, the historically Black women's college. Before taking the position at the Labor Department, she worked at a progressive economic think tank. Jones coined the term Black Women Best to describe how she tries to make sure that marginalized groups are not left behind.

JONES: 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.

RASCOE: The idea is that if those groups are doing well, then that means the entire economy is thriving. She argues, this is not a zero-sum issue.

JONES: The trolls on Twitter would say things like, well, you just want Black women to be rich and then everyone else to be poor. It's like, no, no, that's definitely not what I mean. Also, that's not the way the system is currently structured. Like, it's impossible for that to happen.

RASCOE: Now the Biden administration is trying to turn that framework into results. The administration 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. Whether it passes or not, rebuilding the economy will take time. Jones says the U.S. needs another year of jobs reports like the one from last month just to get back to where it was before the pandemic. But she won't be satisfied with a return to the status quo that maintains economic inequality.

Ayesha Rascoe, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BAD PLUS' "LOVE IS THE ANSWER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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