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Is licensing and regulating hairdressing worth the cost?



Representative Williams has long advocated for carving out an exception for hair braiding in the onerous licensing and regulation scheme for those who work with hair. But now a new bill seeks to radically alter the way hair dressers and barbers are regulated.

Representative Anastasia Williams (Democrat, District 9, Providence) has introduced legislation, for the fourth year in a row, to “exempt natural hair braiders from the requirement to be licensed as hairdressers or cosmeticians, and would define the practice of natural hair braiding.” Last year the bill passed the House but didn’t pass the Senate.

This is unfortunate, because as I showed last year, this bill and its implication for low-income black women are profound. This is the kind of bill that can literally lift people out of poverty. There are also important cultural and racial implications addressed by passing this bill. Hair braiding is a cultural tradition, and forcing onerous licensing on those who wish to practice this tradition is racist.

“This bill is just to enable hair braiders to be financially self-sufficient,” said Williams to the House Committee on Corporations. “They have been doing this for years without any problem, they’ve opened up small businesses, doing great. They’ve been subsidizing their income from time to time from doing hair braiding.”

The cosmetology educational industry is opposed to passing this legislation. Hairdressing and cosmetology schools make a lot of money preparing students to pass the licensing requirements imposed by the State of Rhode Island.

This year, after Williams presented her bill, a new wrinkle was added. Brown University student Austen Rose testified on behalf on Representative Evan Shanley (Democrat, District 24, Warwick)’s bill, H5680, which would repeal and replace all Rhode Island law governing barbers, hairdressers, cosmeticians, manicurists and estheticians, and enact “a new all-encompassing registration and regulation procedure” similar to that of New York.

Can we please ask a favor?

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Rose, following in the footsteps of conservative economists like Milton Friedman, noted that regulation and licensing are often a barrier to job entry and job creation. This argument is obvious when it comes to something like natural hair braiding. When applied to a field like medicine, barriers to easy job entry become necessary for human health and safety. Rose claims that by examining the numbers, and comparing the licensing in Rhode Island to states and countries where licensing is less onerous or non-existent, we can see that the licensing of hairdressers and barbers in Rhode Island only serves those who charge fees for training, and prevents people from entering this job market.

Safety and other commonly cited concerns are not improved through licensing, says Rose, at least not enough to make up for the obvious defects of our present system, such as the fact that studies have shown that regulatory and licensing hurdles “reduces the probability of a black individual working as a barber by 17.3 percent, according to a study published by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.”

That last line was a quote from an oped Rose printed in the Brown Daily Herald, where he first set forth his ideas.

“Per thousand workers, New York and Massachusetts have radically higher employment in the hairdressing industry,” said Rose to the House Committee on Corporations. Both states have less burdensome licensing standards. “They also have lower prices…”

Rose continued, “None of these places, including the United Kingdom which has no licensing whatsoever, have any problem with safety.”

Rose also distributed this fact sheet:

Here’s the testimony from the representatives of the cosmetology training industry:

And here’s the short reply from Williams and Rose:

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Steve Ahlquist is a frontline reporter in Rhode Island. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.