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Accessibility is Crucial in Government Safety Net Programs

Throughout the pandemic, low-income families and immigrants have been working tirelessly on the front lines. They’ve been significantly more vulnerable to COVID-19 exposure and financial strain, yet obstacles involving documentation and accessibility have made it much more difficult for them to receive a number of stimulus services.

Berkeley must provide better access to resources regarding pandemic-related financial aid to prevent families from ending up on the streets. Withholding these services from those in need, regardless of their legal status or native language, can severely increase coronavirus vulnerability and lead to prolonged financial hardship. 

Towards the beginning of the pandemic, state housing departments introduced several tenant protections, including the Tenant Relief Act. The act would have allowed tenants to get financial aid on rent — that is, if they were able to read the website.

Instead, the departments were criticized for clear translation errors on their website, the worst of which labeled the “Return” button in Mandarin as “Go back to your country applicant.” Not only is this translation error misleading and confusing, it’s also incredibly racially charged — especially during a time rampant with anti-Asian hate. Though the flimsy Google Translate errors were eventually corrected, months had gone by since the program had opened; months during which residents could have already given up on government aid.

Many low-income families facing eviction have likely also struggled with food insecurity. Students across the Bay Area began using the district’s free meals program, more than doubling the demand at some schools during the first week of the pandemic. However, a recent study done by Berkeley Interdisciplinary Migration Initiative (BIMI) found a “spatial mismatch” from school meal distribution and concentrations of foreign-born low-income households. 

Many cities have a history of refusing to invest in services in low-income neighborhoods. Rather than having food distribution centered in areas of wealth, Berkeley should consider working further with food banks to reach all neighborhoods in need.

Families affected by language barriers or immigrants already face immense difficulties due to financial instability. During the pandemic, a time when nearly everyone has dealt with heightened vulnerability, those difficulties have only worsened. Immigrants in particular may hold a mistrust of financial aid — rightfully born from policies such as the Public Charge Rule — which state that they may be less likely to receive permanent legal status if they’ve used government services.

According to the BIMI study, despite the disproportionate economic vulnerability of immigrants, they’ve been excluded from a number of relief programs — regardless of whether they wanted to participate. Out of the 84,000 uninsured Alameda County residents, around 65,000 didn’t receive any coverage due to their immigrant status.

In order to overcome the accessibility divide, Berkeley must provide economic resources specifically targeting undocumented immigrants. Additionally, they should increase translation services for those affected by a language barrier. These services may be help lines in multiple languages, or outreach work to increase awareness of government programs.

Safety net programs are meant to target the most vulnerable in times of financial hardship. We must pay more attention to the inclusion of low-income and undocumented families, just as we would to any other citizens, as they are essential to the Berkeley community.