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America has always been a cultural melting pot. Long before the age of exploration began in the 15th century, indigenous people across the Americas developed hundreds of distinct cultures and languages. Today, people descended from cultures originating from all over the globe call the United States home. In this cultural and linguistic mixing bowl, government services need to be culturally competent to work effectively. This lesson has proven especially salient for child support services. Culturally competent outreach methodologies are vital for the courts, service providers, and other community stakeholders who want the best for children. 

How does culture impact the participation and delivery of government programs?

Culture is a blanket term that considers many factors relevant to the lives of individuals, families, and communities. Religion, place of origin, economic class, age, gender, sexuality, immigration status, race, and ethnicity are just some of the elements that shape cultures. Culture isn't just a static expression of background and settled identity, however. Culture also encompasses learned behaviors, beliefs, and chosen ways of life – all of which do a great deal to shape every person's unique worldview. One person can even be a part of several cultures, perhaps even cultures with competing expressions and diverging expectations of what is essential for its members. It is not hard to imagine how these sorts of dynamics might create friction between individuals and social systems (like court systems and child support enforcement programs). Culture defines values and codes of conduct, and that has severe implications for child support enforcement and compliance with binding obligations. 

As an example, in many cultures – including some Hispanic-American and Arab-American households, family issues are expected to stay very private. Authoritative and official channels of mediating family and child services disputes may be taken as disrespectful to the parents or other prominent members of the family. And, in cultures that have strong beliefs about honor and “keeping face” – as in some North African and Asian households – asking authorities to intercede in child support may spur on serious conflict. The noncustodial parent may be so offended as to impede cooperation entirely. 

Navigating through differences in cultural outlooks 

One of the most widely held cultural beliefs in American culture has always been an emphasis on personal responsibility and accountability. Sometimes dominant cultural elements can cause friction when they run counter to cultural values and perspectives of other cultures in a society. In the child support enforcement space, we see this manifest through the tendency of Anglo-American legal systems to punish non-compliance or inability to pay. The unstated assumption is that anyone who fails to comply with the mandated obligations must be doing so willfully. Failure to pay is viewed as a deliberate moral wrong. In this framework, "deadbeats" demonstrate an inability or an unwillingness to succeed financially and pay what they owe. As such, these parents "deserve" punitive steps like the garnishment of wages, fines, and even incarceration. 

Culturally competent outreach emphasizes taking cultural context into account – taking account of the parents' viewpoints, and the context and factors that will impact their cooperation. A parent may be unwilling to admit to being too insolvent to make ordered payments. Another parent may be much more cooperative if allowed to “save face” by accepting automatic electronic payments from an account instead of experiencing the “shame” of wage garnishment and the direct involvement of his or her employer. Focusing on early intervention and employment assistance may produce better results than using punitive measures like criminal penalties.

Helping employers do their part

Culturally competent outreach offers a pragmatic, practical approach to educating diverse groups of stakeholders and communities about social and human services programs. In the context of child support, a big part of this comes into play in respect to mandatory employer notification requirements. Reporting new hires is where the rubber hits the road, and child support enforcement begins. Ensuring compliance is critical for supporting affected children. Employers are people too and are subject to cultural predispositions and perspectives that might otherwise impede reporting compliance. Culturally competent outreach can help programs anticipate and defuse friction from the start. 

A great example of this comes into play when an employer who relies on migrant workers decides how to communicate and comply with authorities. Out of fear of losing their workforce due to immigration enforcement, an employer or its officers may choose not to risk undertaking child support-related new-hire reporting to avoid interagency cooperation that would lead to attention from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Native American tribal enterprises provide another example where cultural attitudes and frameworks impact relations with government authority. Tribes and their enterprises on tribal land are not legally bound to report new hires. Even so, given the large numbers of employees that work in the hospitality and service industry related to tribal enterprises, voluntary compliance is hugely desirable. Cultural competence and considered communication have gone a long way towards getting to mutually beneficial agreements with these two distinct cultural groups. 

Employer non-compliance, when legally required, leads quickly to financial consequences and fines. Culturally competent outreach offers a better approach than assuming deliberate non-cooperation. Many employers do not receive postal service – or they may pay no mind to mail received at officially recorded addresses on file for them. Some employers have a limited ability to read notices written in formal legal English and require assistance in understanding precisely what it is they are obliged to do. Fines may be much less effective than going with customized outreach and customer service.

First steps towards culturally competent outreach

Starting with history and an understanding of where people are coming from, literally as well as figuratively, and how the course of social, economic, and historical events have all helped to shape our diverse and multicultural societies is not a bad way to start. Even so, history can only shine a light on the past. To get a working, practical understanding of the populations we serve, governments and other child support services stakeholders need to learn about the ways that cultures exist and express themselves in the present moment. Perspectives, viewpoints, traditions, values, and current challenges all inform a contemporary understanding of a given culture. Listening and paying attention is essential. Seeking this understanding is a crucial step towards building cooperative relationships with the public and stakeholders.

Another step in getting to know and understand a culture is to seek it out and make a good faith effort to participate. Participation in community events, meeting with influential members and leaders of a community, and engaging in a proactive dialogue can go a long way. Asking questions and practicing active listening always helps. Child support services work best when their objectives and strategies for outreach take culture and community perspectives into account. 

Why culturally competent outreach matters

Ultimately, despite any differences (or perceived differences) that may exist between cultures and communities, we all want the very best for young people. To that end, improving the efficacy and reach of child support programs is in everyone's best interest. Cultural competence efforts have a lot to offer in reaching that shared goal.