Single mother Tameka Stigers figured that she could use her skill at braiding hair to support her family. She soon discovered it wasn’t that easy: Missouri required that she get a cosmetology license before she could do it professionally.
That required getting a degree from a cosmetology school, which would cost Stigers at least $5,000 in tuition and require 1,500 hours of classes. The schools don't even teach hair braiding, she adds.
Alternately, she could be apprenticed under an accredited professional, but she would have to rack up 3,000 hours working there — a year and a half's worth of 40-hour work weeks. By comparison, Missouri requires 23 days of training to be licensed as an emergency medical technician.
"An EMT comes to your home and maybe saves your life. … Why in the world do I need 1,500 hours [of training] to cut and style someone's hair?" said Stigers, who is involved in an ongoing court challenge against the license requirements.
It's not like Missouri is worried about how people's hairdos look, Stigers added. "You can cut and style someone's hair for free, no problem. It's only [an issue] when you charge a fee."
She is hardly alone. An estimated 29 percent of workers across the nation are in occupations that require a license to operate from state governments, up from 20 percent in 2000. The licenses are typically justified on public safety grounds, but critics argue they often do more harm than good by creating an unfair burden on the workers.
President Obama is one of the critics. His proposed $13.2 billion budget for the Labor Department included $15 million to "help a consortia of states identify, explore and address areas where licensing requirements create barriers to labor market entry."
The budget proposal notes that licenses often involve "unnecessary training and high fees" that create a "barrier to labor market entry or labor mobility."
"It's a good start," said Dick Carpenter, research director for the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit law firm that represents Stigers and other people who challenge state licensing requirements.
Addressing the issue would "impact far more people than unions or raising the minimum wage," Carpenter said, adding that the people who suffer the most are minorities and people at the low end of the income scale.
It's also an apparent effort at outreach by the administration to congressional Republicans. Occupational licensing is a rare case in which liberals can agree with conservatives that less government is better.
A spokesman for Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Health, Education Labor and Pensions Committee, said he "is focused on finding ways to make it easier for more hard-working Americans to find and keep a job. He is still reviewing all of the president’s budget proposals."
A study last month by the Brookings Institution found there were "far more cases" in which licensing reduced employment than ones where it improved the quality and safety of services.
The restrictions have resulted in 2.8 million fewer jobs nationally and raised consumer costs by $203 billion annually, Brookings found.
"Occupational licensing tends to reduce aggregate employment growth," said Morris Kleiner, labor policy professor at the University of Minnesota and author of the Brookings study.
Kleiner also found that there often wasn't a correlation between high license requirements and better service. His study noted, for example, that "more stringent licensing of mortgage brokers has no influence on the number of foreclosures, but does lead to higher prices of mortgages."
Licenses do benefit the people who hold them, as their average earnings increase 15 percent. But the benefits are mostly found though in high-paying occupations that require higher education degrees, not lower-income ones.
All states require licenses for at least some professions. In some cases, such as EMT and midwife, that's obviously for public safety reasons. But in numerous others, the need for a license isn't nearly as obvious.
Cosmetologists must be licensed in all 50 states. To be an auctioneer requires a license in 33 states. To be a bill collector requires a license in 30. Door repair contractors cannot do it without permission in 35 states. A license is required in a dozen states to drive a taxi or be a chauffeur.
Carpenter argues that the fact that so many states don't require licenses raises questions about the need for licenses in ones that do. After all, if 20 states have managed to get along without licensing bill collectors, perhaps the other 30 could as well.
When William Main co-founded his Segway-based tour guide business, Segs in the City, in Washington in 2004, he discovered that the city required tour guides to be licensed, which involved a $200 fee. That was an "unreasonable burden" for his guides, Main says.
"You may have a college kid who works for us for eight weeks in the summer and he's got to go through this process of getting a license?" Main asked. With the Institute for Justice's help, he challenged the requirement in court and won.
DC's licensing requirement was backed by the Guild of Professional Tour Guides of Washington, D.C. Stiger's challenge put her odds with the Missouri Board of Cosmetology and Barber Examiners, which consists almost entirely of established industry professionals.
Carpenter argues that the main backers of licensing requirements are established businesses and that licensing is a way to limit competition.
In a 2011 case, a federal court in Louisiana struck down a requirement that selling a casket — that is, an empty wooden box – required a funeral director's license. The court said the license was "not rationally related to public health and safety concerns" and instead served to protect the funeral industry from competition.
In October, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners v. Federal Trade Commission. The FTC says the board, which is comprised of dentists, sought to prevent non-dentists from providing teeth whitening services solely because that hurt the state dental industry. The decision is expected this summer.
Even if the White House and Republican congressional leaders do come together on the issue, there isn't much they can do immediately, experts note. since the licensing is a state issue.
Still, just bringing attention to the issue would be helpful, Kleiner argues. "It can provide an incentive to nudge states to look at this."
And there may be a few things the federal government can do. The White House budget notes that one problem is that occupational licenses typically aren't portable between states, meaning that professionals must start all over if they move. Allowing "interstate portability of licenses" would address this, the president's budget argues.