Robert Hawkins

Affiliated Faculty, NYU Wagner; McSilver Associate Professor in Poverty Studies, NYU Silver School of Social Work

(212) 998-5939
Robert Hawkins

Robert L. Hawkins is the McSilver Associate Professor in Poverty Studies at the NYU Silver School of Social Work. He received his PhD in social policy with an emphasis on low-income families and children from the Heller School of Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University in 2002. Dr. Hawkins has expertise in poverty and welfare, social capital use and development, race and social policy, community participatory research with mixed methodologies, and social policy analysis. He also has extensive programming, research, and teaching expertise in race and racism, gender studies, diversity, oppression, and privilege. Dr. Hawkins has approached the study and understanding of poverty from many perspectives. He conducted research with low-income families in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, engaged in in-depth studies with single mother-led households, and led international work in poor communities in the Philippines. Dr. Hawkins' current research focuses on the idea of poverty as trauma, and addresses the link between social position, negative life events, and social capital usage among low-income people and families. He is particularly interested in the structural, sociological, and psychological barriers faced by low-income people trying to make a successful transition from poverty and welfare to positions of economic sustainability.

Dr. Hawkins came to NYU from the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development and Department of Urban and Environmental Policy at Tufts University. He also has consulted and served on the social work faculties of numerous colleges and universities, including Boston College, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. He has teaching and research experience at Brandeis University, Duke University, and the Harvard Medical School.

Dr. Hawkins has been an administrator and trainer in agencies addressing family needs for both children and older adults. He has worked with the Family & Children's Resource Center and the Center for Aging Research and Educational Services in North Carolina, the American Geriatrics Society in New York City, People for the American Way, and the University College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University. He served as an ethnographic researcher with Welfare, Children, and Families, a three-city longitudinal study lead by researchers from Harvard University, University of Texas-Austin, Penn State University, and Brandeis University. This study examined in detail the lives of low-income single mothers, their neighborhood and community networks, and how the women survive under welfare reform. In addition, Dr. Hawkins has served as an adviser and consultant for numerous other community, nonprofit, and for-profit organizations. He speaks, writes, and presents nationally and internationally on a range of related topics.

In addition to his doctorate, Dr. Hawkins holds a master's degree in social policy from the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University, a Master's in Public Administration from the School of Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a Bachelor of Arts in communications from Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.


Hawkins, R. L. & Weiss, M.. Economic and social abuse of low-income older adults: Policy solutions. Encyclopedia of Primary Prevention and Health. Springer; 2nd ed. 2014 edition



This study uses a social capital and collective socialization lens to examine nonacademic factors in middle school that predict students’ failure to complete high school, and focuses on youth who engage in adolescent problem behaviors of smoking cigarettes, sexual intercourse, delinquency, marijuana use, and alcohol use. Our area of interest was the extent to which these variables were predictive of dropping out of high school measured 6 years later and beyond the traditional variables of school performance and school engagement, which are the target of many dropout prevention programs. Analyses use data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health to follow a nationally representative sample of children from middle school through the end of the high-school years. Results indicate that engaging in regular smoking and sexual activity during middle-school years predict high-school dropout independent of school performance during middle school. Acts of delinquency during middle school in the context of poverty (i.e., mothers’ receipt of welfare was proxy for poverty) are also predictive of high-school dropout. These findings suggest the importance of factors that reach beyond school performance and school engagement as possible targets for dropout prevention programs.



In this paper, we introduce the Socio-Economic Empowerment Assessment (SEEA), a qualitative assessment that uses an ecological framework to better understand the psychological impact of poverty and financial insecurity. The assessment is designed as a practice tool and can be administered in a number of clinical settings, including agencies most likely to serve low-income populations. It can also be included as part of financial literacy or management sessions that social work agencies may offer. This paper explores how SEEA can be used to help develop specific and appropriate interventions that move low-income people and others toward economic empowerment. We examine the literature on financial literacy programs and theories on behavior regulation and social relationships related to consumption. A case study using an integrative assessment approach is included as an example of SEEA implementation.


Over several decades, social capital has gained intellectual currency as a means to understand the dynamics of individual and community resources. While prevalent in other disciplines, social capital, however, has been used less often in social work to inform practice or policy development. In this paper, we argue that social capital is an efficacious construct for integrating the separate aspects of social networks and support so as to analyse the by-product of social relationships in the field of social work. We draw distinctions between social capital and conceptualisations of social networks and support and explore the concepts of social capital and present the usefulness of the concept as an analytical and theoretical model for micro and macro practice. We purpose that understanding the role of social capital can help social workers connect individuals to resources, but that it can also be used as part of established practice models. We conclude that essential to using social capital is the understanding that the concept (i) is different and distinct from social networks and social support, (ii) has both positive and negative elements and (iii) operates at the individual, community and institutional levels and can be relevant in all social work settings.


In this article, we describe the principles of anti-oppression advocacy (AOA), an intervention model that is informed by ideals of social justice and by an emphasis on promoting psychological weilness in immigrant communities. We argue that the AOA model can create positive transformation through alternatives to traditional modes ofpsychological intervention, through social capital advocacy, and through activist-oriented partnerships between universities and communities. We also outline some of the challenges involved in advancing the AOA model, namely existing methods of service-delivery that ignore the complex workings of racism and long-standing methods of training that fail to equip practitioners with tools to counter oppression in the communities they serve.


This paper revisits William Julius Wilson’s thesis that class has surpassed race in significance of impact on African Americans. Our study uses qualitative data from a three-year ethnographic study of 40 largely low-income families in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. We also include a review of the recent U.S. Census study assessing New Orleans’s current economic state. Participants in our study viewed race and class as major factors in four areas: (1) immediately following the devastation; (2) during relocation to other communities; (3) during the rebuilding process; and (4) historically and structurally throughout New Orleans. Our analysis concludes that racism is still a major factor in the lives of people of color. Further, for the poorest African Americans, race and class are inextricably linked and function as a structural barrier to accessing wealth, resources, and opportunities. The results have been a reproduction of the economic disparities that have historically plagued New Orleans.


Hawkins, R.L., Vashchenko, M. V., & Davis, C.. Social capital and Juvenile Justice: Can we use it and how. In Health and Well Being in the Juvenile Justice System. F. Sherman and F. Jacobs (Eds). Pp. 245 – 266. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

The Objective Structured Clinical Evaluation (OSCE) methodology was originally developed to assess medical students. OSCE is a carefully scripted, standardized, simulated interview, in which students’ interactional skills are observed and assessed. Here it is examined for its potential use in assessing social work practice skills. The development of the Social Work OSCE (SW-OSCE) and the Clinical Competence-based Behavioural Checklist (CCBC) are described. Findings from a pilot study assessing MSW students’ clinical skills with explicit observable criteria of the CCBC are presented.

A quantitative and qualitative mixed-methods data analysis was applied. The CCBC had high internal reliability, for both the overall sample and for the different case scenarios, with Cronbach's alpha values ranging from 0.888 to 0.965. The validity of the instrument was also examined: qualitative content analysis of the taped interviews indicated that clinical skills and cultural empathy are not synonymous. The racial/ethnic match between the student and the ‘client’ did not predict better rapport or more cultural empathy. Examination grades are not necessarily consistent with actual performance in either clinical competence or cultural empathy or vice versa.

Nevertheless, the results provide some support for the use of the SW-OSCE as a tool for assessing performance in social work practice. They also indicate its potential for evaluating the outcomes of educational programmes.



This article describes the use of problem-based learning to teach students about the scope and consequences of urban poverty through an innovative cross-curricular project. We illustrate the process, goals, and tasks of the Community Assessment Project, which incorporates community-level assessment, collection and analysis of public data, and social policy analysis and planning. Students in three master's classes (Social Work Research I, Ending Poverty: Models for Social Change and Social Action, and Advanced Social Policy in Aging) worked in self-directed groups to explore the impact of economic insecurity on our most vulnerable clients. The project engaged students, linked research and policy practice, and helped to educate the next generation of social workers about urban poverty and strategies for community-based research and practice.


Using the concept of ontological security, this paper examines the physical and psychological loss of home and community following Hurricane Katrina. This qualitative longitudinal study includes 40 heads of households with school-age children who lived in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Participants describe a breakdown in their social fabric at the individual and structural/community levels that contributes to a sense of community loss and social displacement, disrupting their ontological security--their notion of safety, routine and trust in a stable environment. Three interrelated reactions were common: 1) experiencing nostalgia for their old neighbourhoods specifically and New Orleans in general; 2) experiencing a sense of loss of people and things that represented a level of security or constancy; 3) initiation of a process for re-establishing ontological security whether or not they returned to New Orleans. The paper concludes that intangible losses have an important psychological effect on community redevelopment and recovery from trauma.


This article is a qualitative study that examines the social capital in the lives of 20 formerly homeless and nearly homeless single mothers with children in their care. The findings for this study indicate that the mothers' close social ties simultaneously served as a resource and a hindrance to their progress into sustainable work or education. Findings also show that nearly all of the women in this study benefited from “weak” ties by receiving information or other kinds of resources from strangers or friends of friends. Implications for policy and practice are also discussed.


The objective of this study was to investigate whether a program designed to change the economic conditions of clients' lives could also have an impact on reducing their level of depression. The study focused on a sample of men and women attending a program designed to transition clients out of poverty through microlending and peer support. Results revealed that 40.5% of participants who met diagnostic criteria for major depression before beginning the program were no longer clinically depressed after participating in the program for 6 months. The results also revealed that the clients who reported that they felt a strong sense of interpersonal connection within the program were the most likely to recover from depression.

Hawkins, R. L.. Outsider in: How race, identity, and sex affected research in New Orleans. Qualitative Inquiry, 16(4), 249 – 261.



This study is a qualitative grounded theory examination of the pre- and post-Katrina life of hurricane survivors. Forty heads of households with school-age children who lived in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina were interviewed 6 to 8 months apart. Findings suggest that low-income study participants had experienced multiple negative life events linked to their poverty status prior to Hurricane Katrina. Participants described negative life events that included social isolation, physical and mental health problems, high debt or financial insecurity, dangerous neighborhoods, witnessing early deaths, experience with or witnessing violence and child abuse, experience with or witnessing incarceration, and teen pregnancy. Implications for practice and policy include a call for more comprehensive approaches to providing services to low-income families.


In the past decade, social capital has been explored internationally in the disaster and social work literature, particularly in terms of historical oppression and limited economic resources of disadvantaged communities. Social capital in the United States, however, has had less integration. Using a qualitative grounded theory approach, we examine the different types of social capital (bonding, bridging, and linking) through a social work lens. We examine how social capital operated in the lives of 40 families following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Louisiana. We attempt to understand how residents utilized their social capital to survive the storm, relocate, and rebuild their lives and communities. Results indicate residents, especially those with low incomes, relied on, built upon, and collapsed all levels of social capital for individual, family, and community survival. Participants described a process through which close ties (bonding) were important for immediate support, but bridging and linking social capital offered pathways to longer term survival and wider neighborhood and community revitalization. This paper also discusses how social capital inclusion in social work can strengthen or hinder individual and community development following a catastrophic event.



Studies of the social lives of men and women living with co-occurring disorders (substance abuse and serious mental illness) suggest that social networks critically influence recovery. In this paper, we examine some of the reasons that the social networks of individuals with co-occurring disorders are small, and the impact of small networks for this population. Using a social capital framework with cross-case analysis, we analyze 72 in-depth qualitative interviews with 39 formerly homeless mentally ill men and women who were substance abusers. All were participants in the New York Services Study (HYSS), a federally funded study of mentally ill adults in New York City. The patterns suggest that networks shrunk because 1) social network members died prematurely, 2) study participants withdrew or pushed others away, and 3) friends and family members faced so many obstacles of their own that they could not provide resources for the study participants. We suggest that as networks diminished, some participants responded by attempting to rebuild their networks, even if the networks provided negative social capital, and others isolated themselves socially to escape the pressures and disappointments of interaction.

Hawkins, R. L.. The Child Care Development Block Grant and the Child Care Development Fund. In Early Childhood Education: An international encyclopedia. B. New and M. Cochron (Eds.). pp. 113-114. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Company.



In-depth interviews were conducted with 13 formerly homeless mentally ill women to capture their individual life trajectories of mental illness, substance abuse, and trauma in their own words. Cross-case analyses produced 5 themes: (a) betrayals of trust, (b) graphic or gratuitous nature of traumatic events, (c) anxiety about leaving their immediate surroundings (including attending group treatment programs), (d) desire for one's own space, and (e) gender-related status loss and stigmatization. Findings suggest formerly homeless mentally ill women need (and want) autonomy, protection from further victimization, and assistance in restoring status and devalued identity. Avenues for intervention include enhanced provider training, addressing experiences of betrayal and trauma, and more focused attention to current symptoms rather than previous diagnoses.



Current social policy that affects welfare recipients focuses on the concept of "self-sufficiency" where leaving welfare for work is the goal. While this approach has reduced welfare rolls, it has not necessarily helped low-income people improve their economic, educational, or social outlook. This paper suggests that the concept of Personal and Family Sustainability (PFS) may be a better way to evaluate and direct social policy. A definition of PFS is developed from the environmental and community development roots of sustainability and four domains for creating PFS indicators are introduced.


Hawkins, R. L.. Social capital in theory and practice. In Applied developmental science: An encyclopedia of research, policies, and programs, Celia B. Fisher and Richard M. Lerner (eds.). Sage Publications.
Hawkins, R. L.. Single mothers and their children. In Applied developmental science: An encyclopedia of research, policies, and programs. Celia B. Fisher and Richard M. Lerner (eds.). New York: Sage Publications.
Hawkins, R. L.. Family policy. In Applied developmental science: An encyclopedia of research, policies, and programs. Celia B. Fisher and Richard M. Lerner (eds.). Sage: New York.
Leibson-Hawkins, B. & Hawkins, R. L.. Cultural identity development in bi-racial children. In Applied developmental science: An encyclopedia of research, policies, and programs. Celia B. Fisher and Richard M. Lerner (eds.). New York: Sage Publications.



Older African American women are at high risk for morbidity due to anger suppression and stress. Yet sources of everyday stress and conflict in the lives of older African American women have not been documented. Such information is essential for developing health promotion programs. A focus group study was conducted with older African American women on everyday stress and conflict. Everyday stress stemmed from worries about functional disability and about accessing transportation. Everyday conflicts occurred with adult children, teen-aged grandchildren, and older neighbors or peers. Conflicts with adult children centered on how the adult child was raising his/her children. Conflicts with grandchildren centered on social respect. Conflicts with neighbors/peers centered on perceived rudeness or past transgressions. Participant strategies for dealing with stress and conflict tended to be avoidant. A training program in constructive conflict strategies for older African American women is presented that draws on information gained in the focus groups.