Shannon Sanchez-Youngman got her undergraduate degree in political science at UNM. She briefly pursued a graduate degree at the University of Minnesota and conducted research there. "It was so abstract. I felt like I wanted to do something in the world," she said.
She spent the next 10 years working in social programs, such as teaching GED courses for Welfare to Work and serving as an outreach coordinator for a domestic violence shelter.
"I saw what poverty really looks like. I grew concerned about social and racial inequality on the ground, in the lived experiences of people," she said.
Sanchez-Youngman grew frustrated with the way money was allocated for programs. "Why do we spend so much money treating these problems within the individual? Doling out benefits doesn't address the causes that emanate from social inequality," she said.
She started thinking that policy level changes needed to be made. "Is it effective to provide psychosocial treatment when it may be more effective to look at the inequities and how they emerge and develop policies that don't ignore this?"
That way of thinking brought her to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Center for Health Policy at UNM.
Sanchez-Youngman's dissertation focuses on how immigrants are represented in political rhetoric and policy making in the Affordable Health Care Act.
"In New Mexico, people are more likely to support inclusion of immigrants, especially those individuals who are uninsured themselves. Many think that the uninsured view immigrants as competitors for health care dollars, but the opposite turned out to be true. The uninsured are empathetic with the immigrants' plight," Sanchez-Youngman said.
She said Latinos have the lowest insurance rate of any group in the United States. "Within New Mexico and at the national level, Latinos are supportive of immigrant access to health care reform."
She said that the support includes public options in health care. "Federal reform efforts didn't include a public option, one that expands insurance coverage to all the uninsured."
What was included in the federal reform plan was the expansion of Medicaid to high risk pools. "But it didn't extend as far as earlier legislation did," Sanchez-Youngman said.
"The change was related to Republican opposition to the bill. The public option was proposed by the Democrats, but the Republicans countered it through rhetorical comments like ‘death panels' and ‘socialized welfare,'" she said.
She started looking at how political elites reframe and formulate debates to leave out certain aspects of health care legislation – as they did with the immigrant population.
Republicans played on anti-immigrant sentiment and opposition to large-scale government intervention and higher taxes. "Political elites shape through rhetorical devices both the debate and the content of legislation," she said.