Mayana Bonapart was a 2019 Somers Aging & Long-Term Care Research Intern. After being selected for the 2019 summer program, Bonapart was matched with an internship at the Social Security Advisory Board (SSAB) and was subsequently hired full-time as a policy analyst. She has graduated from Columbia University with a master’s degree in social work.
(This is our first-ever Associate Member Spotlight. Young professionals interested in social insurance are invited to join the Academy as Associates after completing one of the internship programs or receiving a Heinz Dissertation Award. There are now nearly 500 Associate Members of the Academy.)
Q: What was your first day as an intern like?
My first day at the Social Security Advisory Board I attended the MINT Forum (MINT is a microsimulation model which stands for “modeling income in the near term”). The Board was hosting a forum in which MINT and other microsimulation models were being discussed—how they work, the benefits, who has access to them. I helped facilitate what I could and took notes on the proceedings. I was one of several people helping to coordinate the forum and later I worked on editing the 100-page transcription of the proceedings, which includes a list of panelist recommendations.
Q: Did you have an ongoing project assignment?
When I came on board, I was excited to jump into two research projects. One involved examining the impact that field office closures have on vulnerable populations. The other was a request from Congress to evaluate both the Social Security Administration’s decision to reinstate reconsideration, and to recommend possible improvements to the initial and reconsideration steps in the disability determination process. The first five months of my research, dedicated to the latter project, culminated a couple of weeks ago with different stakeholders getting together to discuss different process improvement ideas.
Q: You have a master’s degree in social work; did studies prepare you for the data work you encountered?
In my graduate studies, I specifically chose a track that would allow me to have a systems level approach to social work. My interest in developing more public policy skills began to peak during my second year of field work when I worked with an advocacy organization, Raising Women’s Voices. They do a lot of work defending and promoting the Affordable Care Act. I learned a lot about the ACA during my time working with them, as well as in classes researching the Medicaid eligibility gap. You could say that’s where my interest in social insurance began.
Q: What are you doing now at SSAB?
My research at SSAB has focused primarily on the disability determination quality review processes at the initial and reconsideration levels. One of the most disconcerting issues that arose when I attended a National Disability Forum was the lack of coverage for medical testing that people need so they can make a case for obtaining Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). This was a good example of how intersecting social insurance programs—like SSDI and Medicaid—could inform policy decisions.
Quality is nebulous because it’s defined by many in many different ways. When you talk about quality, you also need to ask quality for whom? In the SSDI process, quality assurance means a disability determination is delivered accurately and promptly. It’s where quality can get complicated, in terms of the differing interpretations on what is an accurate decision.
Q: What does someone who has new eyes bring to the process?
I would like to explore how public and private partnership collaboration might enhance social insurance programs in terms of service delivery, work incentives, technological innovations, and data collection. For instance, one of the recommendations that seems to have significant potential to improve the disability determination process is about making information about the SSDI program part of a doctor’s education, either in medical school and/or as a continuing education requirement.
One of the most fulfilling experiences in my work has been to witness people from different fields sitting around a table and sharing perspectives on how to improve the disability determination process. Just getting people to the table to discuss a shared interest is rewarding to me and that’s why I consider the idea of consensus as something worth striving towards.
Q: What’s frustrating to you?
The chronic understaffing and underfunding of the programs that deliver services frustrates me. I’d like to see more collaboration between the public and private sectors when trying to grapple with Social Security. Because, to me, the nature of social insurance is the realization that we’re all in this together.
Q: Do you think social insurance is difficult to define for young people?
Social insurance is often defined conceptually as protection against risks. I think, at least for me, it’s helpful to think about it as a verb. My idea of social insurance is interdisciplinary research or work incentivized by the drive to enhance public programs that address people’s basic needs. Interdisciplinary—the need for people within different fields, different stakeholders, public and private, to work together to better serve the public—is a key element for me.
Q: What influenced you to work in this field?
I grew up on Mt. Tamalpais in California. My hometown tie to this profession is my grandma. She was, and still is, a licensed clinical social worker. I grew up listening to her stories about working in a public health-social work pilot program at UC Berkeley and as a hospital social worker, which sparked my interest in this field. Later, I had some serious health issues and my family was able to pay out of pocket for integrative health care, which motivated me to pursue policy work around healthcare access. My grandma has always been a guiding force for me, and I often quote her. I think of advice she gave me in graduate school such as, “When something seems impossible, start with a little bit. Even a little bit can make a difference.” Recently she told me, “There’s nothing more exciting than ideas.” It’s certainly true here in DC, which is like a petri dish for neural synapses—it’s such an exciting, intellectual place to live.