3 Questions for…Assistant Professor Rob Hartley
Assistant Professor Robert Paul Hartley, who joined the School of Social Work in 2019, is an applied microeconomist working in the fields of labor and public economics. He recently published a report for the Poor People’s Campaign on the voting potential of low-income Americans, which received widespread media coverage. Before becoming an academic, Hartley served as a Christian minister, working with and alongside people living in poverty.
We are pleased to have him as our first guest for a new “3 Questions for…” series. He talks to CSSW Communications about his Georgia roots, his passion for poverty studies, and his love of teaching social work students. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Question #1: What are the formative experiences and influences that led you to get involved with researching poverty and its effects?
While growing up in South Georgia, I idolized leaders like Martin Luther King, Andrew Young, and John Lewis. All were ordained ministers who lived and worked in Atlanta, and were concerned about racial and economic justice. I went to Georgia Tech to study engineering, yet this was also where I began to explore faith and vocation in a way that would lead me to seminary and to later becoming an ordained minister. My ministry experience was often centered in work related to poverty, along with activism and marching.
I subsequently came around to studying economics as a way of thinking about how social policy is formed—how it shapes the lives of those living in poverty and how we might empower individuals to break out of intergenerational poverty. My wife and I started a master’s program in economics together and went to Rwanda after graduation on a temporary assignment in microfinance. Later, I would choose the University of Kentucky for my PhD in Economics because they have a center for poverty research. I also appreciated their strong focus on teaching and pedagogical training.
Question #2: Is there some success that stands out in your mind that you’re really proud of?
Right now I’m excited about an economic paper I’ve been working on, with Carlos Lamarche and James Ziliak, “Welfare Reform and the Intergenerational Transmission of Dependence.” We find that the welfare reforms of the 1990s, including work requirements, had the effect of decreasing participation in cash welfare assistance but did not decrease welfare participation more broadly or otherwise increase self-sufficiency across generations. It’s been a big project, and I’m proud of how it has shaped up. We just submitted another round of revisions to the Journal of Political Economy, where it is under review.
I also love teaching social workers, and I’m really proud to be able to be part of the work that they do. My students at CSSW make great progress in my class, and I love it when they tell me how the course has helped them in their training. Social work is a beautiful profession and in a lot of ways very close to the work that I did in ministry.
Question #3: What is the most important lesson you’ve learned doing this work, and what do you wish you’d known when you started that you know now?
As an academic you apply for grants, you send out papers, and there’s so much critique and rejection built into that. Lots of us bristle at any criticism. But now I’m at a point where that response has died away a bit. I’m open to feedback and to revisiting what I’m thinking, what I’m doing, and how I’m doing it. I’ve taken it as a humbling acknowledgment that my point of view doesn’t have to be right, and I don’t have to be perfect. I appreciate that I have a lot of people around me I can learn from.
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