By David Langlieb

Here’s a challenge I’d put some money behind: provide me with a compelling, substantive public interest-based reason—for why it takes 1,250 hours of training to become a licensed barber in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Or why a Pennsylvania cosmetologist needs the same 1,250 hours of training or 2,000 apprenticeship hours? This is the current law, and the only way around it is ‘reciprocity,’ which means proving licensure from a different state with similar training requirements. New Jersey, for example, requires a mere 900 hours of barber training. Is hair styling really more than a quarter less difficult east of the Delaware River? 

All snark aside, barbering and cosmetology are skilled professions and quality training undoubtedly helps create better barbers and cosmetologists. Further, to the extent that toxic chemicals are utilized in these fields, anyone working with such substances should be competent in best practices for handling them. But a sense of proportion is in order when a thousand-plus hours of training at an accredited program will cost prospective barbers and cosmetologists $15,000 – $25,000, particularly given that in a typical ten-month program, trainers only spend a fraction of the curriculum hours on skin diseases, chemical handling, bacteriology, and other matters that directly affect consumer safety. 

Of course, we need licensing and a robust regulatory state where public interest exists. We can be foursquare behind stiff licensing requirements for heart surgeons and dentists without requiring new barbers and cosmetologists to pay tens of thousands of dollars for training programs. As a matter of simple common sense, a self-taught dentist poses a radically different consumer risk than a self-taught barber. 

There are reasons for these licensure requirements, but reducing public risk is low on the list. They exist first to justify the licensing bureaucracy and the employees who depend on it, second to preserve the interests of the training schools, and third to protect the incumbent licensed professionals who had to go through the process themselves. We find incumbency bias like this throughout our system, as existing professionals are (understandably) unenthusiastic about new competition from aspiring barbers and cosmetologists not facing the same barriers to entry. Incumbency bias sometimes makes good policy sense but it can also create unfortunate outcomes.


The Costs of Overreach

Perhaps this is making mountains out of molehills. How much does it really matter if Pennsylvania barbers are over-trained? 

To me, there are two very particular and critical reasons. For starters, haircutting and cosmetology can be excellent employment and entrepreneurial opportunities. Unnecessary licensing and red tape drive up the cost of entering these professions and ends up being prohibitive in many cases, particularly for younger individuals without the resources to pursue expensive degrees and certifications. A medical doctor may need to borrow hundreds of thousands of dollars to complete medical school, but the amortized lifetime earnings of that doctor are typically more than sufficient to repay the loans. It is much more challenging to underwrite a small business loan to a prospective hair or nail salon owner, given how substantial the upfront costs of licensure (on top of equipment, leasehold improvements, and startup working capital) are relative to prospective earnings. 

People come to professions like haircutting and cosmetology for many reasons. Some might have a special passion for the work, some may simply lack the resources for college. Others may find that their undergraduate education failed to provide opportunities for a living wage career and enter these professions already burdened with student loan debt. 

Things are worse still for citizens returning to society after incarceration. It wasn’t until Governor Wolf signed Act 53 into law in 2020 that prior criminal convictions unrelated to an applicant’s desired profession were also a barrier to getting Pennsylvania occupational licensure. Folks attempting to reenter society already face significant challenges securing employment, and exclusion from licensing is yet another obstacle. Act 53 is, in theory, a good first step towards occupational licensing reform. But, as argued in an April 2023 report published by Community Legal Services, the implementation of Act 53 has been riddled with difficulties. The most significant issue involves the Bureau’s overly broad interpretation of offenses “directly related” to the relevant licensed occupations. Such offenses continue to throw a wrench into licensure for returning citizens. 

These are practical problems. But a broader principle is at stake for those like myself who support a robust public sector capable of making a positive difference in people’s lives. I’m inclined to recognize problems the free market cannot solve and favor strong government involvement to alleviate them. The liberalism that gave us Social Security and Medicare, FDA-inspected food, fair housing, civil rights safeguards, the Environmental Protection Agency, and much more is a precious domestic asset and critical to our survival as a multi-racial democracy. 

But public support for government intervention in a democratic society is fluid and needs constant reaffirmation. The multi-generational project of libertarians and conservatives looking to core out and weaken the essential components of the modern progressive state draws its oxygen from foolish public policy and maladministration. A state government that prohibits a formerly incarcerated citizen from cutting hair has a tough case to make when it asks for more authority, regardless of how justifiable the prospective intervention may be. It is crucial for those of us who believe in the progressive state to care about how the government functions in practice and to improve it where possible. Government involvement in any area is not a virtue in and of itself. A popularly elected government needs to strike a balance between ensuring quality public services and jettisoning frivolous or counterproductive interventions.


Matters of Federalism

There is a kind of paradox at work here: while the broadest interventions exist on the federal level, citizens interact most often with their government on the state and local levels. And in a complex modern society like ours, who is intervening isn’t always straightforward. The average citizen has a limited understanding of how the EPA regulates clean water but an excellent understanding of whether or not the garbage gets picked up. Nonetheless, both are critical.

Philadelphia—a liberal city in a swing state and an ideologically diverse country—has the added difficulty of an acute need for robust local government without the resources of wealthier counties. And within this regulatory latticework, an alphabet soup of federal, state, and local agencies deliver different services, some more competently than others. We can forgive citizens for lassoing all of this into “interactions with the government” when they think about how the public sector functions. This is all the more reason the government needs to work effectively everywhere to sustain its popularity anywhere. 

Occupational licensing reform is a minor personal obsession, as I spent years in CDFI small business lending and grew frustrated by how these kinds of regulations hamper entrepreneurship. But there is a more significant principle at play, which is that the breadth and quality of government involvement matters the more localized it gets. It matters how responsive municipal government is to the needs of both tenants and property owners. It matters how quickly local government agencies issue permits and approvals as well as the thoroughness of application reviews. It matters if people feel safe on SEPTA and walking our commercial corridors. It matters if residents broadly find the government responsive to their needs. 

Much of our system is in good shape. Within the Philadelphia Accelerator Fund’s world of financing affordable housing, we see the City as an essential partner, aligned with our goals and responsive to the same fundamental mission. The work by PHDC and other agencies makes it possible for the Fund to execute on expanding affordable housing and enhancing opportunities for minority-owned development firms. PHDC’s Minority Developer Program (MDP) is just one such recent effort, providing direct technical assistance that helps create a pipeline for Accelerator Fund loans and, in turn, supports affordable housing development by MBE firms. 

There are many examples in Philadelphia of government at all levels directing resources in a well-considered and carefully administered way. And tens of thousands of public employees are doing excellent work under difficult circumstances. Given the challenges of governing a complex modern society, it is more crucial than ever that our public sector get as much right as it can, focusing its energies on compelling public interests. A lighter touch can be part of this effort, mainly where the government imposes rather than subsidizes, and particularly at the state and local level.