The Ford School of Public Policy hosted a conversation on Friday with public policy experts as part of the Ford School’s annual Welcome HoMe celebration, which specifically explored the structural inequities in U.S. health policy that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. 

Paula Lantz, James B. Hudak Professor of Health Policy at the Ford School of Public Policy, is specialized in population health and trained in social demography and social epidemiology. She was one of the key speakers at the event and discussed how social inequalities in healthcare captured her interest in health research, as well as the policy reform needed to address certain health issues at a population level.

“I’m also drawn to policy because as a population health scientist I see public policy as … unfortunately, one of the drivers of inequalities that we see,” Lantz said. “(Public policy reform is) the most efficient way … but we’re not going to improve health and health disparities … one person at a time with medical care or health care. We need public policy reform on many, many levels, including social policy reform, to make those shifts in population.” 

Celeste Watkins-Hayes, Ford School Dean and founding director of the U-M Center for Racial Justice, was also a speaker at the event. She started with how she began as a sociologist focusing on economic equality and shifted to health research during her work with women, outlined in her book Remaking a Life. Watkins-Hayes described how she interviewed one woman diagnosed with HIV, and that the interaction opened her eyes to how healthcare, social support and economic networks directly translated into how she was living. 

“(It) really led me down a path to understand all the ways of the chain of the role of public policy,” Watkins-Hayes said.  “So really, I think it’s so important to think about those micro-level experiences, funnel up to the institutional level and then funnel up to the larger macro-structural policy level.” 

Watkins-Hayes went on to explain the intersectionality of race, class, gender and sexuality and how critical it is to have historical and contemporary knowledge when navigating how race shapes public policy. She noted how the Center for Racial Justice was created to discuss how public policy can acknowledge historical legacies and play a critical role in correcting past injustices.

Isabel Gomez, Master of Science student at the School of Public Health, said she attended the event to better understand how she can utilize her Biostatistics degree to have a more focused lens on health policy. She said this talk helped her recognize how to speak about social and political issues.

“How you say this information to different populations will have an impact, so I think one of the major things I got is that language is extremely important, and secondly that there are several ways of looking into some of these health issues,” Gomez said. “This is kind of a perspective that I hadn’t thought about before.”

The conversation then shifted toward COVID-19 and the social dynamics surrounding the pandemic, focusing on how social policies that attempted to contain the virus had devastating effects on disenfranchised communities. Lantz said there are certain social policies that can address nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs), which are essentially actions people can take to slow the spread of illnesses. NPIs do not include getting vaccinated or medicated but can include wearing a mask.

“There are studies that show the mortality rates … were much higher among African Americans and Hispanics, especially people in urban areas, and the research has shown that one of the primary reasons it was higher in communities of color was the kind of work people did,” Lantz said. “So the mortality rate was much higher among those essential workers … many of them didn’t have sick leave — so a social policy that will help mitigate some of the problems within the NPIs … that you need is paid sick leave.”

Rackham student Maya Watanabe told The Michigan Daily after the event that it’s important to understand how social dynamics, race and sexuality are playing a role in the data she analyzes in the School of Public Health. She explained how this event helped shape her perspective in her own analysis of biostatistics and how to integrate these ideas into her studies. 

“I think it’s really interesting to think about how others experienced in their field — epidemiology and sociology — are thinking about the same systems that we work in,” Watanabe said. “Race and sexuality are in the background of our research, but it’s important to foreground them, especially as public health professionals.”

Lantz discussed the lack of sufficient healthcare and social policies within the U.S., despite the huge investment into healthcare. Watkins-Hayes further discussed the political divisiveness that conflates social and health policy within the U.S.

“We have good policy discussion, we’ve got evidence-based solutions, we know what works and what doesn’t, we’ve got reams of research to demonstrate it,” Watkins-Hayes said. “But in a very corrosive and divisive political environment, when there’s not a strong incentive for leadership to be collective as opposed to divisive, it all kind of goes by the wayside.”

Daily Staff Reporter Brooke Halak can be reached at