The Corner

Licensing Away the American Dream

What job does Iowa license more stringently than EMTs, pest control applicators, dental assistants, animal-control officers, childcare workers, and security guards combined? African-American hair braiding.

Iowa requires a cosmetology license to braid hair. This costs up to $22,000 in tuition and a minimum of 2,100 hours of course work. Worse, the cosmetology classes barely touch on hair braiding. Yet anyone braiding hair without a cosmetology license faces imprisonment and fines up to $10,000. These rules badly hurt many vulnerable workers.

For example, Aicheria Bell is a single mother living in Des Moines. She learned natural hair braiding as a child and braided in several states. She went to cosmetology school in Minnesota and completed more than 900 hours of training. But the school taught her nothing about hair braiding, and she needed income to support her children. So she left. When she moved to Des Moines, she considered enrolling in a cosmetology school, but quickly realized the new school also taught nothing about African hair braiding.

Aicheria now works in a salon as a hair braider with a special permission from the state — so long as she only uses a comb. She constantly worries the government will change its mind and shut her down, preventing her from providing for her family. 

Achan Agit faces similar challenges. Agit fled to the U.S. from South Sudan, escaping a civil war. She learned to braid hair at the age of five. For a while she braided in a salon in Missouri. But Agit dreamed of opening her own salon, so she saved and moved to Des Moines. However, the state rejected her application to open a braiding salon because she lacked cosmetology training. Without completely unnecessary licensing requirements, she would be running her own hair-braiding business.

Natural hair braiding poses no health or safety risks to anyone, yet Iowa requires a cosmetology license to do it. That only benefits cosmetology schools. Workers shouldn’t need an expensive government permission slip to work.

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