Language Access Makes Public Services More Effective and Makes Economic Sense

Testimony from NJPP Policy Analyst and State Policy Fellow Marleina Ubel in support of expanding language access for non-English speakers.

Published on Mar 6, 2023 in Immigrants' Rights

Good morning, Chair Sarlo and members of the committee. My name is Marleina Ubel and I am a policy analyst at New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP), a nonpartisan think tank focused on advancing economic, social, and racial justice. Thank you for the opportunity to testify today.

Everyone should be able to access basic government services. Yet lack of translation on websites and documents, especially when dealing with vital services like unemployment, health care, or even registering children for school, creates a barrier for the 2.6 million New Jerseyans who speak a language other than English at home, including over 350,000 seniors. In one of the most linguistically diverse states in the country, New Jersey needs to ensure that its residents can interact with their government.

I also want to lift up two points:

Language access makes public services more effective. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated in real time how important it is for governments to produce timely, accurate translations of critical information (such as public health guidance and vaccination data) and government documents (such as unemployment applications, health insurance documents, and state websites). Google Translate, which is used for most state websites, often garbles technical definitions, creating the possibility of misunderstanding and inaccuracy. In fact, there were many accounts of text message alerts received during the COVID-19 crisis response that were unintelligible.

Language access makes economic sense. Given the fact that New Jersey still has $1.4 billion in ARP funds and that those funds are explicitly intended to create the kind of infrastructure that would avoid unintelligible communications from our government during a pandemic and create more accessibility within government, the up front cost to translate websites and documents seems like a no brainer. Additionally, the kinds of issues that folks would report if they had the ability to do so have the potential to make government operate more efficiently and thus, generate more revenue. Just one example: I spent a great deal of time as a social worker translating for folks that were trying to report wage theft. Employers who are not paying their employees, are also not paying taxes on those employees, not mention all the downstream effects of not receiving income you were expecting.

As a state whose strength has come from its diverse population, New Jersey deserves to be a place where all people have equal access to government services.

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