New Jersey: Cultural competency makes for efficient public policy

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Tue Feb 10 02:50:05 UTC 2009

Cultural competency makes for efficient public policy
By LAZARO CARDENAS • February 8, 2009

In these difficult economic times, it makes sense for all levels of
government to provide the most efficient services possible to the
public. With this in mind, the Latino Leadership Alliance of New
Jersey calls on Gov. Jon Corzine and the state government to follow
through on their commitment to provide culturally competent services
to all citizens. We anticipate the governor's blue ribbon panel on
immigration will address the issue of cultural competency in its
forthcoming report.

The purpose of cultural competence is to provide services to the
community in a language understood by its members and embodying
respect for individuals' cultural beliefs. It's humane, and it's also
sound public policy. A lack of cultural sensitivity and an inability
to communicate results in failure for the individual and a squandering
of government resources.

Perhaps the best example of this is in the field of mental health
services. There is no way to properly provide mental health services
to someone in a language he or she does not understand or without an
appreciation of cultural sensitivities. The same applies to other
health-related services, including the program NJ FamilyCare. New
Jersey has more than 250,000 children not covered by health insurance.
Of these, more than half are children of immigrants. Furthermore, 30
percent — nearly one-third of all children in New Jersey — live with
immigrant families. Cultural competence is of paramount importance
when deciding how to reach and enroll these children.

Local community-based agencies are an economical way to educate and
enroll these families in the program because they provide services in
a culturally sensitive environment. A 2003 public policy report by the
state found that 24 percent of New Jersey residents speak languages
other than English and more than 11 percent speak English poorly. Last
year, the state Legislature included language in the state budget
requiring several departments and agencies to provide culturally
competent services. The Legislature singled out the state Department
of Human Services, the Juvenile Justice Commission and the Department
of Children and Families.

This was a sound first step. But we need to go further. The state
needs to define clear criteria for social-service providers as to what
defines culturally competent services, and some consideration should
be given to providers with track records in the communities they
serve. It is not enough to have someone who speaks the language of
those seeking services. Programs must be structured in a way that
respects the culture of those they serve.

Failure to meet those requirements will result in failure and
disappointment for those seeking to provide the services. We can spend
all the money we want but if it is not targeted to those who need the
services then we might as well set it on fire in the public square. We
need to address issues such as health disparities, access to job
training, after-school services for youth and inmate re-entry
programs. Cultural competency is one of the keys to success in
addressing those issues of public concern and it has the added benefit
of making for sound, efficient and effective public policy.

Lazaro Cardenas is the deputy director of the Monmouth County chapter
of the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey.
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