When Spanish-speaking immigrants first started arriving in Sedalia in the late 1990s, there was very little bilingual language capacity within public agencies. The human service agency initially hired an interpreter to provide language services once a week, but the contract was subsequently discontinued due to underutilization. Due to the lack of bilingual staff, the welfare agency relies on a mix of interpretation services, all of which are based outside the agency.(8) These include local churches, a community-based organization, and applicants’ friends and families. In contrast, both the public hospital and health center, which receive a much higher volume of limited English speakers than the welfare office, have hired a bilingual Spanish speaking staff person to help applicants fill out and submit Medicaid and/or SCHIP applications.
Human service agency staff noted that they rarely need to contact interpreters because limited English-speaking applicants know the agency does not have interpreters and therefore bring their own interpreter to the office. For example, many Spanish-speaking applicants are helped by a state-funded, full-time bilingual application assistant housed at a local CBO. The smaller and more recently settled Ukrainian population draws upon family and members within their community to accompany applicants on visits to the welfare office. Although funding for contracted interpreter services is still available, agency staff reported that they have found the current informal arrangements to be more efficient and satisfactory. Finally, while eligibility staff can access a private language line as a last resort, virtually none did so — citing the same logistical and financial constraints as workers in other sites.
* * * * * *
Based on discussions with program staff, administrators, advocates and applicants, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to providing language services. Differences in the size and diversity of the immigrant and LEP populations in the study sites have resulted in different responses by human service agencies. Even within a given site, differences in the sizes of various LEP populations have motivated welfare agencies to rely on varying language access tools and strategies as they try to balance demand for communication with LEP applicants with the supply of agency resources and personnel.
For the most dominant language group in each site, the sites found it useful to have some in-house staff available to provide interpretation. For less common language groups, however, this approach may not be cost-effective and may be difficult to administer. Therefore, relying on alternative forms of language assistance to accommodate less-common languages is reasonable and perhaps even preferable. However, multi-tiered approaches may become simply patchwork attempts at filling gaps in language services by whatever means happen to be available at the time. In such situations, LEP applicants may not receive the interpretation and translation services intended by stated policies unless a commitment is made to fully implement each tier and educate staff on the sequence of priorities.
In all of our sites, LEP Spanish speaking individuals are the most likely to receive adequate language services because agency staff are more likely to speak Spanish than any other language and there is a stronger community and agency infrastructure for handling the language needs of these applicants. However, in new settlement areas, such as Sedalia or Raleigh, this infrastructure is still relatively undeveloped. Speakers of less-common languages have even more mixed experiences. Those who are refugees often receive significant assistance navigating the application process from resettlement agencies. In Dallas and New York this extra help for refugees is reinforced by specialized agency offices or units that exclusively or primarily serve refugees.
Regardless of the site, sustained growth in the immigrant population and the increase in the number of languages spoken by immigrants present significant challenges to public agencies. Localities that traditionally receive large numbers of immigrants and have already developed strategies for handling their needs are trying to keep up with the extra demands posed by the large increase in the number of languages spoken by the most recent immigrants. On the other hand, localities that have only recently become home to significant numbers of immigrants have had to determine how to meet the needs of these newcomers and develop language assistance systems largely from scratch.
Because of the continually changing composition of the immigrant population across our sites, simply adding new bilingual staff to match each new immigrant wave may be neither possible nor prudent. Whatever language strategy localities embrace, they also need to build in some degree of flexibility to keep up with changing language needs. While providing language services on a contract basis may help mitigate this problem, it also may reduce the ability of public agencies to monitor the overall quality of the language services provided to LEP applicants.
Many of the study sites focus on providing language assistance at key stages of the application process which require the most interpersonal contact (i.e., during initial reception and eligibility interviews). Less visible but still critical aspects of the application process, including the provision of translated written material and telephone interpretation services are often overlooked or inadequately addressed components of language access strategies.
Finally, the findings in this study indicate that it is important to view language access strategies used in the administration of public benefit programs within the context of the application processes for these programs. The more complex and involved the application process, the greater the challenge for providing language assistance at each stage in the process and the greater the likelihood that language difficulties would lead to miscommunications, incorrect determinations or terminated applications. Simplifying application processes where possible and making language assistance systematically available at every stage in the application process appears to improve communication and processing of applications by individuals with limited English proficiency.