By Sarah Fister Gale

For millions of Americans living in poverty, every time they seek public assistance to buy groceries, access medical care, or rent a subsidized apartment, they have to share deeply intimate details about their lives.

“You need to give a lot of personal information when you seek help from social safety net institutions like welfare and subsidized housing,” says Cayce Hughes, PhD ‘17, who is currently a post doc research fellow at Rice University.

“It feels like an invasion of privacy,” said Hughes, whose dissertation explored how poor African American mothers must give up personal privacy and accept surveillance as a condition of seeking help from the social safety net.

“When people rely on social programs, they are required to complete reams of paperwork, answering questions not only about their income and assets, but about who they live with, their intimate relationships, and their lifestyle choices,” Hughes explains. These data are ostensibly collected to make sure benefits are distributed accurately and efficiently, but for participants it can feel, as one of Hughes’ respondents put it, ‘like they turn you inside out.’

Further, when surveillance in the safety net identifies discrepancies or reveals that a person has violated a program rule, participants can lose their benefits, be hit with costly fines, or even face jail time. “This process reinforces a harmful belief that they are people who need to be watched, and who don’t deserve privacy,” Hughes says. “Surveillance further strengthens this belief, because the more closely you watch someone, the more likely you are to see them break a rule.”

Hughes developed an interest in food insecurity while working in the organic food sector in California. He completed a master’s degree in public health at Temple University in 2009, but still felt like he had deeper questions to answer.

Hughes’ public health advisor put him in touch with Mario Small, then a professor in the sociology department at the University of Chicago. While Hughes was in Chicago visiting his sister (a MAPPS alumni), Hughes met with Small about pursuing an advanced degree in sociology. He also met with Kristen Schilt, who was about to start her first year as a professor at Chicago, and whose work on trans men in the workplace Hughes had admired.

“I was immediately drawn to the department,” Hughes says. He liked the way the academic community approached questions, and collaborated across disciplines. “The intellectual curiosity of grad students and faculty was unique.”

He also appreciated the advice Small, who is now at Harvard University, gave him in their conversation about his future. “He told me to choose an institution based on the program, not a person because faculty are always moving.”

Hughes began his PhD program at UChicago in 2010. Schilt became his advisor, and Small and Schilt co-chaired his dissertation committee.

Hughes credits Schilt and Small with helping him develop research habits that he relies on today, and teaching him to ask questions and think about issues in new ways. “Kristen gave me a model for how to be a scholar, a person, and a teacher,” he says.

She also had a profound impact on Hughes’ experience as a transgender researcher. “Having a queer, feminist sociologist as a mentor was transformational.”

Hughes had transitioned well before coming to UChicago, but he had not talked about his identity within the research community. Schilt was the first person in the program he told, and she was profoundly supportive, he says. She later invited him to write a chapter in the collaborative book project: Other: Please Specify: Queer Methods in Sociology, on what it is like to study privacy and disclosure as a trans man. The book showcases the work of emerging and established sociologists in the fields of sexuality and gender studies as they reflect on what it means to develop, practice, and teach queer methods. 

Hughes says that while he was doing fieldwork and interviewing women about disclosing personal information, he noted parallels with his own experiences of transitioning. Institutional gatekeepers in medical and governmental institutions also require a great deal of personal information disclosure and adherence to regulations from trans people seeking medical and social services. And the process can sometimes feel punitive. “Although the stakes are radically different, my experience gave me unique insights into what marginalized people feel like, especially when they need something from powerful bureaucracies.”

In Fall 2020, Hughes will begin the next chapter of his career as an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Colorado College, where he will teach classes on urban sociology, urban poverty, and social welfare. “It’s an intense and immersive environment where faculty are expected to do research and teach,” he says. “It is my dream job.”

Before starting the new position, he plans to complete a book based on his dissertation, entitled Privacy, Poverty, and Punishment: How Surveillance in the Social Safety Net Penalizes Poor Black Mothers, which will be published by the University of California Press. He hopes the book will provide policy makers and future researchers with insights into the experiences of poor people seeking help.  “I hope it causes people to think more deeply about the larger issues of surveillance and why all people should still have a reasonable expectation of privacy,” he says.