“Most of them—they only have us,” says Ashley Crawley, her voice shaking a little as she describes her clients, adults with developmental disabilities.
Crawley is a Direct Support Professional, or DSP, who cares for three people living in a group home operated by Life Unlimited, a nonprofit contracted by the state of Missouri.
Crawley makes $11 an hour. Working full time, Crawley’s salary equates to just $21,120 per year—before income tax or social security. Her health insurance runs $300 a month.
“My best friend works at McDonald’s,” Crawley says. “She makes $15 an hour, and her benefits are so much better than mine.”
Crawley isn’t alone, and her situation points to a brewing crisis in Missouri’s social services.
Given the low unemployment rate, strong economy and Missouri’s tight state budget, organizations like Life Unlimited are finding it increasingly difficult to find qualified caregivers.
As the salary for fast food workers continues to climb to $15 across the country and the fracking boom lures workers to North Dakota and West Texas, Missouri has been shaving its already thin budget to care for people with developmental disabilities.
Two years ago, the state cut funding by 3 percent, and while 1.5 percent of the funding was restored last year, the situation remains dire.
Crawley works in a group home. Her labor-intensive, emotionally demanding job requires rigorous training and extensive background checks.
“There’s nothing that compares to what DSPs do,” she says. “We are teachers, medical care providers, chauffeurs, cooks, financial managers and counselors.”
Given the low pay and difficult work, the turnover rate for DSPs like Crawley stands at 60 percent, according to Mark Bertrand, vice president of external relations for Life Unlimited. A quarter of the positions are open at all times, and applicants are few and far between.
“Many leave the profession within their first year because they cannot afford to stay,” Bertrand says. “Then painstaking candidate searches and training programs must start all over again.”
The ones who stay, like Crawley, do so because they love the work.
“I’ve tried different jobs, but my clients are like my family. Even on my worst day, they welcome me with open arms,” she says.
Still, she’s not sure how long she can stick with it.
“I used to work overtime to help make ends meet, usually from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week,” she says. “But then I injured my ankle. And now we are barely making it.”
Ashley’s husband broke both knees in an accident and lost his job. He stays home with their eight-year-old adopted son, who struggles with emotional issues.
“I know money isn’t everything, but I have a family to support,” she says. “I make too much to get Medicare and not enough to afford Obamacare.”
According to Bertrand, Missouri’s “historical under-funding” has kept Crawley from earning a competitive salary. Many of Life Unlimited’s DSPs work two or three other jobs to make ends meet.
“One in four DSP’s lives in poverty,” Bertrand says. “Benefits are scant, and career advancement opportunities are limited.”
The caregiver crisis threatens the very existence of the modern social safety net in Missouri, which replaced the often brutish institutions where adults with developmental disabilities once lived, their lives rigidly controlled and their options severely limited.
There are now about 25,000 adults with developmental disabilities living in Missouri, says Andrea Adams, director of development for Open Options, which merged with Life Unlimited in September of 2018. Most live in group homes with the aid of DSPs.
Adams worries that as the population ages, the crisis will get worse. Which is why the Missouri Department of Mental Health is requesting $76.5 million to address the crisis in with caregivers.
There is good news: Missouri Governor Mike Parson’s proposed budget allocates $12.6 million dollars to raise DSP wages, and the Missouri House committee that oversees these efforts has recommended an additional $7.9 million.
Those who work in the field say it’s still “only a fraction of what’s needed,” but would at least start moving things in the right direction for people like Crawley — and her clients.
“My clients deserve to have this level of care,” Crawley says. “But I give up so much to care for other people’s family members.”
▸ $11 an hour
▸ $21,120 per year before income tax or social security
▸ Health Insurance: $300 per month
▸ Turnover Rate: 60%
FAST FOOD SALARY-
▸ $15 an hour
▸ Competitive Benefits