Legislators in both the New Jersey Assembly and Senate introduced bills in April that would exempt hair braiders from having to obtain a cosmetology license. While this may seem like just another mundane order of business in Trenton, it’s actually very encouraging. Leaders of all political stripes are honing in on the damage done when states go too far in regulating who can and cannot work in certain professions.
New Jersey is one of only 13 states that requires hair braiders to obtain a cosmetologist license to work. Perhaps more important, aspiring hair braiders must complete 1,200 hours of approved instruction in cosmetology and hair styling. Not one of those 1,200 hours includes training in hair braiding, however. The new proposal would remove the state’s licensing requirements and instead simply mandate that all hair-braiding shops register with the state.
Occupational licensing today affects nearly one in four American workers. Although licensing makes sense in some specific professions to protect the public from harm, it’s difficult to justify for hair braiders. Why require them to jump through arbitrary hoops that have nothing to do with the practice of their craft?
Pennsylvania and New York allow hair braiders to obtain a specialty license — one that requires training in hair braiding rather than unrelated skills. In Delaware, hair braiders are allowed to work without a license.
Would deregulating hair braiding be beneficial? In a new working paper published by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, I (and co-author Catherine Konieczny) estimate the economic effects of Virginia’s decision to do just that in 2012.
Between 2012 and 2014, the number of small beauty shops in Virginia increased by more than 8 percent. This growth is higher than bordering states of Kentucky and West Virginia — two states that required hair braiders to obtain a cosmetology license. Today, both states have removed this requirement.
Occupational licensing makes it more expensive for aspiring entrepreneurs to start a new business. In New Jersey, tuition to attend beauty school may cost as much as $20,000 (including the mandatory purchase of a training kit) for a 10-month program. This barrier may be too great for many aspiring hair braiders to overcome.
What does the public gain from forcing hair braiders to complete these mandatory requirements? It is hard to believe that it improves public safety in any way — especially when, again, the required training may not include even a single hour of instruction in hair braiding.
What is very clear, though, is that citizens in New Jersey have fewer beauty shops to choose from thanks to the regulations. And less competition means fewer choices and higher prices for New Jersey consumers.
So, who does benefit from these laws? There are at least two groups: currently licensed cosmetologists and people who have a stake in established beauty schools. Already-licensed cosmetologists don’t have to compete with potential hair braiders who don’t have the time or money for the required training. Beauty schools get more business from aspiring hair braiders, who must complete seemingly unnecessary education. Both are in position to charge higher prices.
Occupational licensing reform is not and should not be a partisan issue. The sponsors of the NewJersey bills are all Democrats, and plenty of Republicans support the idea. The Obama White House released a report urging state lawmakers to reconsider the costs and benefits of occupational licensing laws. The secretary of labor in the Trump White House agrees. Several states enacted reform last year, including New Hampshire and South Dakota.
There are not many things these days that all of us can agree on. A careful reconsideration of occupational licensing requirements for hair braiders in New Jersey, however, appears to be one of them.
Dr. Edward Timmons is an associate professor of economics at St. Francis University and director of the Knee Center for the Study of Occupational Regulation.