Baseline of Discrimination: The True Crisis

When is a crisis no longer a crisis? When it has been going on for 30 years.  For the past 30 years, the role of Direct Support Professional (DSP) has been plagued by high turnover-rates, diminishing income and low staff levels. This is not a new reality. It is not the result of an historic bull market or low unemployment rates. This problem has persisted through market swells and crashes, recessions and periods of economic flourishing. What has been termed a “crisis” for the past 30 years is not, in fact, a crisis. It is a baseline; a baseline rooted in social bias and discrimination.

Direct Support Professional is a demanding position requiring a diverse mix of competencies. Part counselor, part nurse, part advocate, part behavioral analyst, part activities coordinator, part cook, part housekeeper, DSPs wear many hats and move in and out of many roles. To perform effectively, a DSP requires patience, emotional intelligence, organizational skills, behavioral management strategies, medication administration certification, cooking and cleaning skills, and so much more.  The role of DSP cannot be filled by just anyone. It requires a wide range of skills. It is not an average unskilled entry-level position. But it is paid like one.

Our economic system tends to compensate employees according to the rarity of their skills. Not everyone is trained to do the work of a surgeon, a CEO, or a lawyer, but most people have the skills to run a cash register or serve food. It is basic supply and demand. The rarer the skills, the greater the compensation. Experience teaches us that not everyone can succeed as a DSP. The high turnover rate for DSPs (the national average is currently at 46%) attests not only to the poor compensation the position receives, but also to the position’s difficulty. People have a hard time staying in the job because it is hard work requiring a broad set of skills.  Add to this that the need for DSPs is expected to grow every year from now until 2030 and you have a strange economic situation. A demanding job, requiring multiple skill sets, that is experiencing increasing demand, and that many people cannot do, should be compensated significantly more than an ordinary unskilled entry level position. It just makes economic sense. But here is the reality:

  • The average wage for DSPs is $11.76 per hour.
  • DSP wages have decreased over the past 30 years when adjusted for inflation.
  • Most DSPs have to work a second (or third) job to support themselves and their families.
  • At current wage levels, many DSPs live below the federal poverty level for a family of four.
  • About 50% of DSPs must rely on public assistance to meet their basic needs.

The increasing need for DSPs combined with diminishing compensation makes for an unsustainable system. It will collapse upon itself if it isn’t changed.

This problem is not merely an economic issue. It is a social justice issue. As briefly argued here, the typical economics of the job market do not explain the chronic under-funding of direct support positions.  The persistent poor compensation of DSPs is in truth a symptom of a persistent social injustice: discrimination against people with disabilities. Because those with disabilities are less-valued, the positions that support them are less valued as well. Increased funding is essential to address the current economic injustice DSPs experience.  But to truly address the problem, such that it doesn’t recur, the social injustice must be corrected. This requires a shift in cultural consciousness that gives proper respect to people with disabilities. Anything less will lead us right back into the same position regardless of what gains may be made in funding over the short term.

The person supported and the person supporting are inextricably tied. To devalue one is to necessarily devalue the other. A true and abiding solution to this ‘crisis’ will come only when a new baseline of dignity and respect is set for both.