It’s not every day a small business venture goes from the front yard to the White House lawn in just a season. But for Frank Giaccio, a young and ambitious entrepreneur from Northern Virginia, that’s just what happened.
Frank, an 11-year-old Falls Church resident, started his own business mowing lawns “to show the nation what young people like me are ready for.” He saw a prime opportunity in mowing the White House lawn to simultaneously land a big client and secure a healthy amount of free advertising. An earlier missive to President Obama proved unsuccessful. But undeterred, the young Virginian tried again. After current White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders read Frank’s letter, the ambitious youth finally landed his dream job—along with personal encouragement from the president of the United States.
On the surface, this story is a heartwarming tale about inspiring kids to appreciate the value of hard work and dare to dream big. Beneath that surface, however, local laws cast a web of red tape that could ensnare any kid who runs afoul of regulatory busybodies (or Debbie Downers on Twitter)—like the teenagers arrested for selling water without a permit to thirsty tourists on the National Mall or the young girl threatened for selling lemonade without a business license in San Francisco.
Local law in the District of Columbia requires that every business get special permission from the government to operate. That means if Frank wanted to mow the White House lawn for profit—rather than for free, as he actually did—or offer his grass-cutting services for hire anywhere else in the nation’s capital, he would at least have to get a basic business license from the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
Fortunately for Frank, his native Falls Church exempts children under the age of 16 from its business licensing requirements. So his lawn-mowing business is safe from government intrusion for another five years. But if he ever tries to expand beyond the city limits, he’ll have to be careful not to run afoul of harsher laws that could threaten him with fines or even jail time—even in Virginia.
According to the Institute for Justice’s (IJ) “License to Work” report, the Commonwealth of Virginia has the eighth most burdensome licensing laws and is the 11th most extensively and onerously licensed state for moderate-income occupations. Virginia requires two years of education for aspiring teacher assistants, even though 19 of the 29 states that license the occupation mandate no training. Vegetation pesticide handlers are not required to have any experience in 39 states, yet the commonwealth requires one year. Virginia is also one of only seven states to license upholsterers, requiring payment of $100 in fees.
On average, aspiring practitioners of licensed occupations across the commonwealth must spend more than 15 months on education and experience before they can earn an honest living. That means Frank might well find it even harder to start a business in Virginia in the future than it is to operate his current one across the Potomac River.
Local lawmakers in Virginia and across the country should find more ways to encourage entrepreneurs, young and old, rather than penalize healthy economic ambition and innovation.