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Know Your Rights
Source: TortDeform: The Civil Justice Defense Blog
Subject: Language Access
Type: Media Coverage

Time to Let a Little Sunshine In

Sometimes, complex, intractable problems require complex, expensive solutions. So it’s particularly frustrating when government refuses to adopt a free, simple and proven method to address an important social issue.

That’s the case in New York City, where social services officials are struggling to get public assistance benefits to the people who need them most. A recent report by the grassroots group Community Voices Heard shows that people with disabilities continue to have a hard time getting the help they need, despite a city program dedicated to helping them.

According to the report, one of the program’s failures is its inability to ensure that people with disabilities receive the information and support that they need to navigate the complicated public assistance application process, which involves multiple appointments in various locations.

We feel the City’s pain. It’s not easy to provide the millions of New Yorkers eligible for public assistance with all of the specific information they need about the many different rules governing public benefits programs. The task is made harder by the many different languages spoken in the city, and by the fact that a substantial proportion of the people needing public assistance have a low level of literacy.

That’s why it’s particularly surprising that the city is placing obstacles in the way of non-profits that want to help get information to the people who need it. Since the Giuliani Administration changed the city’s welfare policy, New York City has forbidden advocates from setting up help tables in the government offices where people apply for benefits. Groups literally left out in the cold include the New York City AIDS Housing Network, which wants to get benefits information to HIV positive people, and Make the Road by Walking, which wants to let people with limited English proficiency know about their right to an interpreter. The result is incomplete applications, and families left without Food Stamps, Medicaid, and other life-sustaining benefits, solely because they don’t find out what they need to know to submit effective applications for those benefits. Advocates will help to ensure that there is less error in the distribution of public benefits, which benefits low-income families, city agencies, and the general public.

Now, the New York City Council is considering a bill, the Ready Access to Assistance Act, that would require the city to allow advocates to set up help tables in the public areas of benefits offices. It shouldn’t take a piece of legislation to require such a common-sense measure. But since that seems to be the only thing that will move the bureaucrats to let a little sunshine in, we hope it passes, and soon.

* Laura K. Abel and David Pedulla are Deputy Director and Research Associate, respectively, at the Brennan Center Strategic Fund.