Johnie Jones graduated from the LBJ School in 2011 and was hired by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) where he works on strategic partnerships for the department. Recently profiled by The Pacific Standard in their "30 Thinkers Under 30" series, Johnie has distinguished himself as a rising leader in the federal agriculture policy arena. In this Q&A, followed by a video interview, Johnie discusses some of the greatest policy challenges currently facing our nation, as well as other activities taking place at USDA.
What, in your opinion, are some of the greatest policy challenges facing our nation?
I think the most challenging policy issue right now is how polarizing our legislative branch has become. And as a result it makes it so difficult for public servants like myself to do a really good job because we have to deal with so much uncertainty. However, it also creates an opportunity for us to be creative and innovative in how we approach policy.
What is the greatest policy challenge facing the agricultural industry and rural America?
Until this year the greatest policy challenge facing agriculture was not having a Farm Bill. However, Congress was able to work together and craft a bill, which allows the men and women who feed millions around the world to invest confidently in their future, and provides critical tools that support economic development and job creation in rural America.
I think rural America continues to face a unique set of challenges when it comes to combating poverty. Nearly 85 percent of persistent poverty counties are located in rural areas, and one-third of rural counties have child poverty rates of over 30 percent. While I want to focus on poverty for this conversation, I also want to make clear that another policy challenge is making sure rural Americans are able to capture historic opportunities in renewable energy, local and regional food systems, recreation/conservation, and production agriculture. We need to make sure that our policy makes the greatest impact.
I came from a modest upbringing in a small town in rural Arkansas. Growing up, many of my peers couldn't wait to move to the "big city" and after high school many of them did and were very successful. I've worked with a few and interface with many others here in D.C. that are doing great work and are outstanding public servants. However, a number of them stayed in rural Arkansas, defaulted to self-destructive behavior and perpetuated the cycle of poverty due to a lack of job opportunities that offer a living wage. It's my belief that if we increase the minimum wage to a living wage we increase the purchasing power of minimum wage workers, which will stimulate the economy.
This is a challenge because we have to figure out how we can make rural areas great places to live and not just areas we pass through on our way to the city. And USDA is doing that through programs like StrikeForce by leveraging local partnerships to improve economic opportunity and quality of life in rural America, including various counties in Arkansas
What current projects are you working on in your position at the USDA?
Recently I served as the Deputy Chief of Staff for the Rural Development Mission Area, and now I’m on special assignment to the Secretary's office working on strategic partnerships. In this role I still have the opportunity to work with our Rural Development Mission Area by helping them think of creative ways we can leverage our funding.
I'm also working with the White House Rural Council to convene the Rural Opportunity Investment (ROI) Conference this summer. The conference aims to connect capital lending institutions and investors with rural business leaders, senior-level government officials, economic development experts, and other partners to discuss the unmet demand for investment in rural America. I'm really excited about this conference because it’s another way we can expand access to capital, encourage economic growth and build capacity in rural communities, which is near and dear to my heart.
Why a career in public service?
For me a career in public service means that I get to impact the lives of people each and every day. People have real problems, such as a lack of access to affordable health care, jobs that pay a living wage, or access to affordable housing and it takes real solutions such as public policy initiatives to address the underlying problems that contribute to these societal issues, and knowing that I'm a part of that solution just gives me great satisfaction.
What advice would you give young people interested in a career in public service?
Go for it. If you have a heart for people, then public service is the career for you. But stay the course because there are going to be days and nights when you're not going to get a pat on the back or someone telling you “job well done.” You're not going to receive a round of applause for your work, but just know that you're part of a very rewarding career helping to improve the lives of those around you.