Web-Based Benefit Access Tools: Mitigating Barriers for Special Needs Populations. A. Limited English Speakers and Noncitizens


Language barriers prevent many limited English speakers from accessing and understanding information available on web-based benefits access tools. Studies suggest that the complexity of benefit application rules and confusion about eligibility can negatively affect the up-take of benefits (Remler and Glied 2003). In a study by Stuber et al., 2000 applicants confused by eligibility rules were 1.8 times less likely to apply for Medicaid services. Printable online applications can be between 10 and 20 pages in length. Furthermore, technical language required to describe human service and health benefits is often difficult to understand and is above the third- to sixth-grade reading level that many sites strive to achieve. For limited English speakers, confusion about eligibility may be magnified by a lack of English proficiency and comprehension. Technical language, however, can be difficult to translate into some languages.

Limited English speakers and noncitizens also are often hesitant to seek benefits due to misperceptions about their eligibility and fears about deportation and public charge issues. Indeed, it is often difficult for noncitizens to determine whether they are, in fact, eligible for certain benefits due to rules and regulations regarding length of time spent in the U.S., and asylee, refugee, or trafficking victim status (Crosnoe et.al., 2012). Because rules vary across programs, web-based tools that promote access to multiple benefits might yield screening results that may not seem intuitive to users. In addition, noncitizens may associate some of the procedures involved in benefit application, including interviews and finger imaging, with procedures conducted by the Immigration and Naturalization Service[3] (Holcomb et al., 2003). A study by the Urban Institute reports that many noncitizens access benefit services in non-welfare settings, including hospital emergency departments and community health clinics, due, in part, to greater access to translation services and fewer fears of disclosing immigration status (Holcomb et al., 2003). Indeed, while only 17 percent of applications submitted through Benefits CalWIN overall are from non-English speakers, 46 percent of applications submitted through Benefits CalWIN with the help of a CBO are from non-English speakers.

Given these barriers and needs, limited English speakers and noncitizens might benefit from the following:

  • Translation of web-based tools and associated material into multiple languages
  • Culturally sensitive marketing and application materials that address the cultural as well as linguistic needs of specific populations
  • Use of images to pictorially describe difficult language related to eligibility
  • Targeted outreach and application assistance in non-welfare settings and through organizations trusted by the community
  • Education to dispel myths about eligibility and citizenship
  • Use of application procedures with an "opt-out" mechanism for non-applicant family members that makes it clear that only those who will be receiving the benefit are required to have their immigration status verified.

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