Studies of Welfare Populations: Data Collection and Research Issues. The Importance of Language

06/01/2002

The methods discussed in the following sections should be considered in terms of the language and cultural diversity of the state being studied. The percentage of non-English speakers ranges from as high as a third in California to a quarter in New York and Texas, down to a low of 4 to 5 percent in South Carolina, Missouri, and Georgia (1990 Census). Spanish is the most common language spoken by non-English speakers. Again these percentages vary a great deal by state, with 20 percent of the population in California and Texas speaking Spanish at home and only 2 percent in South Carolina. These variations imply that surveys may have to be prepared to locate and interview respondents in languages other than English and Spanish. Moreover, language barriers are greater among low-income households, and low-income households are more likely to be isolated linguistically, where no one in the household speaks English.

The need for bilingual staff as well as Spanish (and perhaps other languages) versions of all questionnaires and materials is crucial, particularly in some states. It is important to keep in mind that many people who do not speak English also may not be literate in their native language, so they may not be able to read materials or an advance letter even if it is translated into a language they speak. In some situations it might be useful to partner with social service agencies and community groups that serve and have special ties with different language and culture communities. Such groups may be able to vouch for the legitimacy of the survey, provide interviewers or translators with special language skills, and assist in other ways. Representatives of respected and trusted organizations can be invaluable in communicating the purpose of the study and explaining to prospective respondents that it is in the communitys best interest to cooperate.

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