Why you should care
Because unnecessary licensing hurts the middle class most.
Last year, Jocelyn DoCouto stood before a handful of lawmakers at the Rhode Island capitol — and began to braid her daughter’s hair. Typically, the 26-year-old works with clients in the privacy of her home in Pawtucket, just north of Providence. But on that day, DoCouto was testifying before members of the House Corporations committee. Her goal? To prove the state shouldn’t require a cumbersome, and costly, license to practice natural hair-braiding.
Considering that braiders don’t always use chemicals, like other stylists or cosmetologists, it may seem like a no-brainer. Yet about half of all states require some license for natural hair-braiders. The cost can be prohibitive to small-time entrepreneurs — not just financially, but also timewise. According to the Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning law firm that has pushed to end braiding regulations in more than a dozen states:
What’s more, the required licenses sometimes have little application to hair-braiding —and if they do, they’re teaching the basics. Yet minority women like DoCouto, whose family is from the African nations of Senegal and Cape Verde, are disproportionately affected by what business-minded conservatives and liberals say is unnecessary licensing. It’s not just braiders who are stuck in a tangled mess of regulation: Everyone from florists and funeral attendants to locksmiths and upholsterers face inconsistent laws, requiring certificates in some states while not requiring them in others. Even the average tree trimmer needs 16 times the amount of education it takes to train an emergency medical technician.
The issue is being pushed by conservatives nationwide as part of a larger effort to reshape the debate around regulations. States like New Hampshire and Kentucky have passed laws recently to deregulate braiding. Both Virginia and Missouri will consider bills this session, although similar efforts failed last year. “Ideally, we’re looking for big-picture reform: changing the ways people and government interact rather than this ‘Mother, may I?’ situation where you have to get permission to do a job you already know how to do,” says David Barnes, policy director at Generation Opportunity, a Koch-funded conservative group focused on millennial issues.
Some states have argued the regulations are necessary. A federal appeals court in St. Louis ruled in January that braiders must remain accredited like barbers and cosmetologists — the licensing process takes more than 2,500 hours to complete. Health risks such as “hair loss, inflammation and scalp infection” were cited in the court opinion. Beauty schools, which are not keen to lose out on a portion of their student population, have also opposed deregulation.
On the flip side, many of the laws on the books aren’t being enforced, because hair braiders simply work out of the privacy of their homes rather than rent a storefront. That’s what Zana Manning, a 33-year-old Clevelander who learned the art from her Trinidadian mother, did when the 35-hour per week, nearly yearlong process became too much to manage. “The hours they need, combined with a regular working schedule, it never seems to meet up,” she says. “A lot of people are avoiding beauty school because it’s just so much to get through.”
Still, the push for less licensing has drawn varied support from left-leaning bureaucrats, who see it as a way to make ground on the income-inequality gap. In July 2015, the Obama White House released a report tackling the topic. “Over the past several decades, the share of U.S. workers holding an occupational license has grown sharply,” it begins, before noting that a quarter of American professions now require a license, compared to just one-twentieth in the 1950s. Licensing requirements, it warns, “raise the price of goods and services, restrict employment opportunities and make it more difficult for workers to take their skills across states.”