Frontline Initiative

Wages- A Major Issue in the DSP Workforce

In my job, I have the daily opportunity to think about and discuss issues concerning direct service work. Over the past several years, I’ve had the opportunity to discuss these issues with thousands of direct support professionals, people with disabilities, supervisors, managers, and executive directors. What I’ve heard and seen in these discussions has convinced me of some key points researchers and professionals in the disability field knew even twenty-five years ago:

  1. The quality of services is directly related to the relationships established between direct support professionals and the individuals to whom they provide services;
  2. direct support professionals don’t earn appropriate and adequate wages for the roles and responsibilities they assume in society,
  3. DSPs aren’t valued and respected as a collective work force within our society and within many organizations, and
  4. direct support professionals have specific roles and responsibilities that require them to have specific knowledge and skills in order to perform their jobs.

Twenty-five years later, we’re still struggling with the same issues: high turnover, difficulty in recruiting, inadequate training, and inadequate wages.

The dilemma we face as an industry is where to start when we address the issues related to the direct service work force. Do we try to increase educational and training opportunities for DSPs? Do we try to value DSPs by showing society their importance? Do we develop quality indicators of service based on the relationship between workers and the people who receive services? I’ve always professed that we must do all of these things simultaneously. However, a recent letter from a Frontline Initiative reader made me realize the importance of wages in any attempt to develop a high quality direct service work force: People want respect in their work. Decent pay equals respect in our society. Training and education is necessary to get decent pay. People receiving supports deserve consistent professional care.

To that end, I’d like to present the results of two national studies on direct service wages. One study surveyed 1,612 agencies providing residential services to people with developmental disabilities across the nation (Braddock, 1992), the other surveyed 3,300 community-based organizations including Big Brothers & Big Sisters of America, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Camp Fire Boys and Girls, Girl Scouts USA, National Network for Youth, and YMCA ⁄ YWCA of the USA (National Collaboration for Youth, 1996). The data presented in the table below reflect hourly wages for full-time workers. 

This data is clear. Many direct service workers who have families live at or below the poverty level and many are eligible for food stamps and other public assistance. It’s common for direct support professionals to work two or more jobs to make ends meet. Despite the fact that DSPs are highly-skilled and provide services to our most vulnerable citizens, they’re not paid an appropriate or adequate wage. All too often, fast food restaurants offer higher wages than DSPs earn. Perhaps one pressing and specific strategy toward bringing value and respect to the direct service work force is to educate the public, policy makers, and our legislators about the pitiful wages DSPs currently earn.

Table 1. Hourly Wages for Youth DSPs

Youth DSPs



Child/youth care worker



Direct support professional



Program aide/assistant



Child care assistant



Table 2. Hourly Wages for DD DSPs




Residential worker - private



Residential worker - public




  • Braddock, D., & Mitchell, D. (1992). Residential Services and Developmental Disabilities in the United States. American Association on Mental Retardation.

  • National Collaboration for Youth. (1996). Salaries and Benefits in Youth Development Agencies–1996. National Collaboration for Youth.