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Here in the world’s most international city, the bureaucracy can sometimes be quite provincial. In a federal class action lawsuit filed last Friday, advocates allege that welfare and food stamps officials refuse to translate their documents and procedures, leaving many non-English speaking New Yorkers helpless–and hungry.

The suit, filed by a coalition of legal service and advocacy groups, claims that the language breakdown violates federal civil rights and food stamps laws. According to the law, if a center has more than 100 non-English speaking clients who share a common foreign language, the office must provide a translator and make sure that all the case paperwork is available in that language.

But, say clients, it doesn’t work that way in New York City. The paperwork is in Spanish and English only, leaving the city’s many Russian, Chinese and Haitian Creole speakers in the lurch when their renewal forms and certification forms arrive in the mail. At the food stamp and welfare offices where clients apply for benefits, interpreters are rarely available. Instead, non-English speakers must try to find another client waiting in the office to help explain what’s going on.

“Not all of the written materials are in Spanish, but none of it is translated into Russian,” said Andrew Friedman of the community organization Make the Road by Walking, who filed the suit in conjunction with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund and the New York Legal Assistance Group. Friedman reported that one of the plaintiffs, Anatoly Kushmakov, was denied food stamps for months, even after he had won a case restoring the benefits, simply because he could not communicate with benefits staff.

NYLAG’s Constance Carden pointed out that there are several low-cost solutions available to food stamp administrators. For example, many caseworkers do speak Spanish, but they are not now deliberately assigned to Spanish-speaking clients. In addition, welfare and food stamp staff already have a directory of community organizations who can provide free translation services. So far, said Carden, most reported that they’d never been contacted by food stamp personnel.

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