Good morning, Chair Beach 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 helps most those who have the least. People who speak a language other than English at home are more likely to live in poverty and are less likely to have completed college or high school, exactly the population most in need of assistance. Yet barriers to entry keep government services from reaching the people who need them. This population is also especially vulnerable to exploitation, such as wage theft. And when dealing with high stress situations such as medical or public safety emergencies, exploitation, or sudden loss of housing or employment, people with limited English proficiency should not face yet another hurdle to getting the help they need.
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.