These results add to a growing body of research that calls into question the link between licensing and quality or consumer protection. Research on other occupations, such as teeth whitening and interior design, has also found that the vast majority of complaints come from insiders and are about licensing itself, not safety. The rare safety issues identified were temporary and reversible. 1  Even government-produced sunrise reports for various occupations have found no or only minimal safety issues, 2 much like Virginia and Colorado did when reviewing hair braiders. 3  And there is little evidence that stricter licensing requirements improve consumer outcomes: A study of dentists, for example, found no improvements in dental health outcomes in states with tougher licensing standards 4

Burdensome licensing regimes may not protect the public, but they do impose heavy costs on both workers and consumers. Licensing makes it more difficult and costly, in terms of both money and time, to enter an occupation. The Institute for Justice’s 2012 study of 102 low-and moderate-income occupations found that, on average, it costs workers in those occupations nine months of their time for education or training, one test and $209 in licensing fees. 5  And that does not take into account various other costs that will arise, such as tuition and income forgone while in school.

These increased costs of entry can make finding a foothold on the economic ladder more difficult for those with less economic, educational and social capital, such as low-skilled immigrants. 6  For example, Fatou Diouf came to America already knowing English, but others in Nashville’s African immigrant community did not. Those who would like to legally braid for a living will not be able to take Tennessee’s braiding exam until they first learn how to read English—something that will likely add a great deal of time and expense to their training. Individuals shut out by onerous licensing regimes like Tennessee’s specialty braiding license may feel they have no other choice than to operate without a license 7 —a decision that also carries costs as it limits prospects for growing their business and puts them at risk of government fines. Or they may choose not to practice at all. 8

Evidence from this study suggests that braiders in more onerously licensed states may, indeed, be opting out or working underground. It finds that many states requiring more hours to become a licensed or registered hair braider have fewer licensed or registered braiders than states requiring fewer hours or simple registration. For instance, Mississippi, with its registration system, requires zero hours of training, while its neighbor Louisiana requires 500, putting it second only to Oklahoma among specialty states. In 2012, Mississippi had 1,245 registered braiders and Louisiana only 32—despite the latter’s larger black population. By May 2016, Mississippi’s population of registered braiders had blossomed to 2,659.

In restricting the number of people who can legally work in an occupation, licensing raises wages for the licensed. 9

 With fewer people entering an occupation, licensees are able to charge more because they serve a larger share of the market. A 2002 study of the cosmetology industry estimated that increased earnings due to licensing totaled $1.7 billion for the industry per year. 10  These pecuniary benefits of licensure could help explain why so many of the braiding complaints reviewed for this study came from cosmetology boards and licensees and were about licensure status: Wishing to preserve these benefits, insiders police their occupations. 11  Illustrating this point vividly is a note Ohio State Board of Cosmetology staff made about a person who called in a complaint: “She is upset that they can operate without a license. She feels they are taking income from those that are licensed. ‘It’s not fair.’” 12

The costs of licensure, in terms of fewer practitioners and more expensive services, get passed on to consumers. 13  Studies of several industries—including dentistry, optometry and cosmetology—have found increases in prices associated with licensing. 14

The 2002 study of the cosmetology industry estimated that licensing increased the costs of services by almost $3 and, with these increased costs, reduced services sought by roughly 14% a year. 15  For braiding consumers, licenses may mean longer wait times and higher prices to see one of the licensed hair braiders operating in their area—if there are any. More likely, they will have to acquire braiding services on the black market from braiders operating underground, travel long distances or across state lines to find a braider, or substitute braiding with other, less-preferred hair-care techniques.

Taken together, these costs in the form of reduced opportunity, constrained choice and inflated prices, are high—likely too high given that the need to license braiders and many other occupations is far from established. But these costs can be minimized or eliminated—without sacrificing safety—through policies that carefully target regulation toward demonstrated risks and favor the least burdensome options. 16

Before adopting new licenses or when contemplating whether to keep existing licenses, policymakers should first investigate whether a problem exists and, if so, whether licensure is an appropriate solution. They may find, as states have for various occupations, 17  that a particular license was a solution in search of a problem and, on that basis, decide to get rid of that license altogether.

Since 2012, when Virginia determined braiding was safe and removed its licensing requirement and a federal court struck down Utah’s regime, 18 momentum has grown to eliminate licensing for braiders (see Momentum for Braiding Licensure Reform). In 2015, the legislatures of Arkansas, Colorado, Maine and Texas each decided that braiders did not need to be licensed. 19  In the cases of Arkansas and Texas, the reforms came in response to lawsuits brought by braiders. And as of July 2016, the legislatures of Delaware, Kentucky, Nebraska and West Virginia also ended the licensing of braiders entirely, while Iowa scrapped its requirement that braiders become licensed cosmetologists in favor of simple registration. 20  These states—and the nine others that do not license braiders—show that it is possible for states to free braiders to practice their craft without apparently becoming hotbeds of braiding-related ills. 21

Mississippi’s experience provides a view of what eliminating onerous licensing rules for braiders can mean for a state. Until 2005, Mississippi braiders needed to become licensed wigologists or cosmetologists, requiring 300 or 1,500 hours of education, respectively. Melony Armstrong obtained a wigology license in order to braid and open her salon, but the requirement never sat right with her. When she learned she would need to spend another 3,200 hours in cosmetology school before she could teach braiding to girls and women in her community, 22  Melony knew she had to do something.

In 2004, Melony took her fight to the courts and to the state Legislature. In response to her lawsuit and energetic advocacy, the Mississippi Legislature in 2005 exempted braiders from the state’s cosmetology regime, requiring only that braiders register with the state, pay a $25 fee, post basic health and sanitation guidelines in their places of business and complete a self-test on that information. 23  More than 2,600 braiders subsequently registered with the state—some of them young women trained by Melony—starting new businesses and bringing existing ones out of the shadows. And Mississippi did not receive a single complaint involving health or safety issues during the period IJ studied.

Melony has welcomed the competition that this expansion of opportunity has brought. It has allowed her to grow her business by hiring more braiders. More than that, it has given her the satisfaction of seeing her community strengthened as her protégées get jobs and, in some cases, follow in her footsteps as entrepreneurs. Her experience vividly illustrates the benefits—job growth, entrepreneurship and stronger communities—that can come from freeing occupations from needless red tape. More states can realize such benefits by removing barriers to entry that do little more than prevent people from earning an honest living.