Skip to content
Know Your Rights
Source: The New York Times
Subject: Language Access
Type: Media Coverage

Study Finds Language Help for Immigrants Lacking

New York is, of course, a city of immigrants. But for residents who speak little English and need government assistance, it is in Manhattan, the heart of the city, that they are least likely to get help applying for food stamps, subsidized medical care and other public benefits in their native language, according to a study released on Wednesday.

In fact, the quality of the help a person gets — or whether he gets it at all — depends to a great degree on where the person lives and what language he or she speaks, the study found.

The study showed that an executive order Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg signed two years ago, requiring city agencies to provide interpreters, translated documents and other types of language assistance to immigrants, is still a long way from becoming reality in some city agencies. Similar findings were detailed on Wednesday in an article in The New York Times about the difficulties faced by immigrants with limited English abilities applying for public benefits.

The study, by the advocacy groups Make the Road New York and the New York Immigration Coalition, is based on interviews with 850 speakers of Urdu, Hindi, Bengali, Korean and Spanish who had dealings with the New York Police Department; Housing Preservation and Development, which oversees the city’s moderately priced housing stock; and, primarily, with the Human Resources Administration, the welfare agency that administers many benefits.

It exposed persistent problems, but it also revealed that some progress has been made at the welfare agency. For example, more than half of the respondents said they had received some form of language assistance at its Medicaid and food stamp offices, and that the help they got was “clear and understandable,” the study says. (The number of study participants who had dealings with the other agencies, 167, was too small to draw any conclusions about the depth of the progress in implementing the executive order’s mandates.)

Connie Ress, a spokeswoman for the Human Resources Administration, said in a statement that the study “misrepresents H.R.A.’s progress in implementing language access mandates.” She noted that the agency had instituted, or was in the process of instituting, many of the recommendations in the study. They include matching clients with bilingual people who speak their language, improving size and placement of signs explaining the availability of language services, and hiring greeters who can help New Yorkers in general navigate the agency, (Ms. Ress said that the agency could not hire greeters for now because of budgetary contraints.)

Ms. Ress noted that even before the mayor’s order was signed in July 2008, the agency had created an office to oversee the quality and availability of language services by stepping up training and increasing compliance checks. In addition, about 7,700 workers, roughly half of the staff, have been trained this year alone, and they will undergo another set of training sessions before the end of the year, she said.

Mr. Bloomberg’s executive order was the first of its kind in a nation. At its signing, immigrant advocates called it “a national example” to other municipalities “pursuing similarly proactive policies.” (The City Council passed a law in 2003 listing specific language assistance requirements for the Human Resources Administration and other local social services agencies.)

Andrew Friedman, an executive director at Make the Road, said that from the start, implementing the executive order seemed as if it would be “an enormous challenge,” particularly in agencies as big as the Human Resources Administration.

“The commitment is there, but the time has come for the city to prioritize it and get it right,” Mr. Friedman said. “More vigilance, more oversight and more powerful commitment at all levels of city agencies are critical to closing the circle on this.”

According to the study, Spanish speakers get more language help than Korean speakers. Among the Korean speakers who participated in the study, only one in 14 were paired with interpreters or Korean-speaking caseworkers in the offices they visited.

Here are some of the main conclusions of the study:

• A majority of participants said that they never saw multilingual signs notifying them of their right and the availability of language services in the welfare agencies’ offices.

• About half of Spanish-speaking respondents said they received application forms, instructions and other written material in Spanish in their visits to the offices. But among the speakers of other languages who participated, fewer than one in five reported receiving translated materials.

• Almost none of the respondents were connected with interpreters by telephone, a service that is available in most city agencies and their field offices through contracts established in 2008.

• Language services are most prevalent in food stamps and Medicaid offices in the Bronx, followed by Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island and Manhattan, where only one-third of respondents said they got some type of language assistance.

• Fewer than one-fifth of participants who visited Medicaid offices had a regular caseworker; among them, more than half said the worker spoke to them in the participant’s native language.

• It is not just the availability of translated materials that varies, but also their quality. More than half of the study’s participants who sought services at Medicaid offices understood the foreign-language forms that were handed to them. In food stamps and other public benefits offices, just one-quarter of the respondents did.

• More than half of the respondents who had dealings with the Police Department and Housing Preservation and Development said that they never received any kind of language help.