Cultural Competency Makes for Effective Public Policy
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
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
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.