• Lisa Knepper
    Senior Director of Strategic Research
  • Darwyyn Deyo, Ph.D.
    Former Senior Research Fellow
  • Kyle Sweetland
    Former Researcher
  • Jason Tiezzi
  • Alec Mena
    Former Research Assistant

For millions of lower-income Americans, state licensing laws make finding work or opening a small business harder and more expensive—if not outright impossible. These laws force would-be workers in fields like barbering, landscaping, interior design and many more to get a government permission slip—an occupational license—before they can legally work. To do so, they often must complete costly training, pass exams, pay fees and more.

Licensing Is Widespread

This third edition of License to Work finds licensing laws like these are widespread: In all, we identified more than 2,700 licenses across the 50 states and the District of Columbia. That’s among a sample of only 102 lower-income occupations. There are many more jobs that require a license.

Licensing Is Burdensome

We found the burdens these licenses impose are steep: nearly a year of required education and experience, at least one exam, and $295 in fees, on average. That’s a lot of time and money spent earning a license instead of earning a living, especially for low-income workers. And that doesn’t include hidden costs like tuition for required schooling.

Questionable Licenses and Licensing Burdens Abound

Licensing laws might be worth it if they improved services or made the public safer, but evidence suggests they often don’t. And we found a lot of questionable licenses and licensing burdens.

But we also found some good news: Since 2017, states have eliminated more licenses than they have created, and nearly 20% of licenses have become less burdensome. Policymakers can open jobs to more Americans and support new businesses by continuing reforms like these. States should:

Repeal needless licenses

Eliminate licenses that are not shown by high-quality evidence to protect public health and safety. Exempt safe services, like many beauty trades, altogether.

Reduce overly steep licensing burdens

Ensure remaining licensing requirements are no steeper than necessary to protect public health and safety. Let consumers decide quality.

Prevent new licenses

Reject new licenses that are not well supported by high-quality evidence or narrowly targeted to protect health and safety. Instead, favor less restrictive alternatives like inspections, registration and certification.

next: Executive Summary

Key Findings

88% of the occupations we studied are unlicensed by at least one state and 14 have been delicensed by at least one state, suggesting these jobs can be done safely without a license elsewhere.

Even most government studies of licensing proposals decline to endorse more licensing, including for 13 occupations we studied.

Many jobs require a lot of training despite posing little risk: 71 occupations in our study require more training than entry-level emergency medical technicians. On average, EMTs need about 36 days’ worth of training versus 342 days for cosmetologists.

State-by-State Results

Based on 102 lower-income occupations

States ranked by combining number of licenses with average licensing burdens (burden rank); first is worst and 51st is best.

Lower Burden
Higher Burden
No Change

The Occupations

Press Release

Check out this report's press release and contact our media team for additional information.

Press Release

NEW REPORT: Licensing Burdens Creep Downward Yet Still Weigh Heavily on Too Many Americans

  • Andrew Wimer
  • November 29, 2022

NEW REPORT: Licensing Burdens Creep Downward Yet Still Weigh Heavily on Too Many Americans Institute for Justice releases third edition of “License to Work: A […]

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