Faculty Spotlight: Celeste Watkins-Hayes

Illuminating Discussions of Inequality

Celeste Watkins-Hayes

From the pages of social science journals to some of the Internet’s most widely respected news sources, IPR sociologist and African American studies researcher Celeste Watkins-Hayes works to further the conversation about social and economic inequality.

Watkins-Hayes, who joined Northwestern/IPR in 2003 after receiving her PhD in sociology from Harvard, pairs her award-winning academic research on urban poverty, social policy, HIV/AIDS, formal organizations, and issues of race, class, and gender, with a commitment to contributing to the public dialogue.

“I’m at this marriage of empirical scholarship and more reflective writing, and I think that they play off of each other really nicely,” she said. “At its best, a professor’s work can offer useful, illuminating, and vital contributions to discussions of the most important issues of the day.”

Health, Hardship, and Renewal

Watkins-Hayes is principal investigator of the Health, Hardship, and Renewal Study (HHR), which explores the economic and social experiences of a racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse group of Chicago-area women living with HIV.

“The broader question is how do economic strategies and the social relationships that undergird economic survival strategies shape health experiences,” she said.

The HHR study looks at the women’s relationship to government and nonprofit services, social support, employment opportunities, and other factors to “tell a story about how those things shape their ability to manage their HIV.”

While Watkins-Hayes acknowledges HIV is no longer a “death sentence” in this country, the crisis is far from over, she said. The public generally underestimates the challenges a person with the disease faces once medical survival is achieved. Past this point, the lack of research into the economic survival of HIV-positive women is what motivated her to create the study.

“Many of the people affected in this country are also disadvantaged economically,” she said, “so I’m trying to figure out how do you manage such a serious and high-maintenance health issue while you’re also thinking about economic survival?”

In 2009, Watkins-Hayes received two highly regarded research awards to conduct HHR, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Investigator Award and a National Science Foundation Early CAREER Award. HHR distinguishes itself not just for its contributions to academic scholarship, but also to the wider community: Watkins-Hayes shares study results with the public via the HHR website and other outlets, and she led the creation of HHR’s Community Advisory Board to stimulate community feedback and information sharing. .

“The thing I’m most proud of is that the study is academically and empirically rigorous, and at the same time, it has a very clear set of real world implications and it has a real commitment to the community,” Watkins-Hayes said.

In reviewing some of the HHR study’s findings, she continued, “It’s telling a broader story about inequality and how people who are at an economic disadvantage are more vulnerable to serious health issues, how HIV is not random, and how we can think about ending epidemics not only through medical solutions but through social solutions.”

Bureaucracies and Welfare Reform

In conducting the HHR study, Watkins-Hayes built off of her previous research into how street-level bureaucrats shape the way low-income families receive services under welfare reform. Conducted in Massachusetts, her research detailed the inner workings of a poverty relief agency in a post-welfare-reform world, where increasing income inequality and a restructured social safety net imposed many new requirements on impoverished mothers.

Her 2009 book, The New Welfare Bureaucrats: Entanglements of Race, Class, and Policy Reform (University of Chicago Press), describes how welfare bureaucrats moved from being check-writers to welfare-to-work caseworkers, often with no additional training or caseload reduction. On one hand, the agencies stress treating clients holistically and meeting their needs systematically. On the other, caseworkers are typically evaluated on how much paperwork they process and fraud they detect. Her research suggested ways to improve the system—and thus families’ outcomes—by employing different types of evaluation, providing advanced training, shrinking caseloads, or giving caseworkers more resources to better assist families.

A Public Voice

After taking part in a media fellowship program, Watkins-Hayes has written several opinion pieces for the New York Times, Al Jazeera, and others in the past year, addressing a variety of issues related to her research and social inequality.

In The Atlantic, Watkins-Hayes praised the 2013 Supreme Court decision striking down a law that required organizations accepting federal funds to fight HIV/AIDS to explicitly condemn sex work.

“Without ignoring the serious ethical, legal, and social concerns that sex work raises, the law likely perpetuated stigma and fear that kept many vulnerable people from obtaining the assistance they needed,” she said.

In another piece for The Atlantic, stemming from her studies of low-income women, she challenges the widespread practice of paying household workers “under the table.” Though it puts more cash in their pockets at the time, it prevents them from accessing resources like unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, and sometimes even Social Security.

“It’s a different kind of writing and a different kind of voice,” she said. While it is grounded in her empirical work, this writing also allows her to air her point of view with the public and attempt “to move the needle on inequality conversations.”

Celeste Watkins-Hayes is associate professor of African American Studies and sociology and an IPR fellow.

Photo by Anthony Campbell.