Improving access for non-English speakers is costly, report says

Improving access to government programs for people who aren't proficient in English could cost the government more than $1 billion, according to a new report from the Office of Management and Budget.

In a report to Congress, OMB said that the cost of improving assistance to people with limited English proficiency (LEP) could be significant, but that the payoff could also be substantial. Better access to federal services such as immigration and health care benefits would enhance the quality of life of non-English speakers and even save the government time and money, according to OMB's cost-benefit analysis.

"Increasing access to government programs may lead to cheaper, more targeted early intervention, avoiding long-term and more costly services to government and society," the report said. For example, improving language assistance programs at the Immigration and Naturalization Service would help a non-English speaker understand immigration requirements better and could reduce the number of violations and costs associated with enforcing immigration law, OMB said.

Such agencies as the INS could also save money by hiring more bilingual employees instead of using contractors to translate information, but OMB acknowledged that extra bilingual staff and more translations could also increase the government's costs.

Overall, the report estimates that the government spends about $46 billion on language assistance programs at the federal, state and local levels. Improving the programs could tack on an additional $1 to $2 billion, OMB estimated.

But the actual costs for improving the programs "may be substantially less than these figures, since many steps have already been taken by federal agencies and recipients of federal funds to serve the LEP population," the study said.

An August 2000 executive order directed agencies to develop plans to make their programs more accessible to non-English speakers. The order refers to Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of national origin, and the 1974 Supreme Court case Lau v. Nicholas (414 U.S. 563) which said language barriers could not exclude individuals from participating in federally assisted programs. Spanish is the most commonly spoken foreign language in the United States.

The report encouraged agencies to develop the same guidance for individuals and entities participating in their LEP programs to improve access to federal services. "Many entities, such as schools, local police departments, doctors, and hospitals, may receive funding from multiple federal agencies," OMB's report said. "It is critical that these recipients be able to easily understand and implement policies issued by multiple agencies, so that LEP individuals receive language assistance in a uniform and consistent manner." Each agency is responsible for determining whether written or oral translations are more beneficial and cost-effective, depending on the situation.

OMB acknowledged that the costs and benefits of the language assistance program were difficult to quantify because of the limited data available. Since most agencies have just started implementing the executive order, OMB did not have enough hard data to comprehensively evaluate the actual costs and benefits of improved access, according to the report.

To estimate the overall cost of current LEP assistance, OMB asked agencies to provide as much information as possible on their LEP programs and then used existing programs in state and local agencies as comparative examples.

To date, 10 agencies, including the Education and Justice departments, have published guidance on the language assistance program. "The ultimate benefits and costs of the executive order will depend on how it is implemented," the report concluded.

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