“We will create 3 million jobs for the Black community, open 500,000 new Black-owned businesses, increase access to capital in the Black community by $500 billion,” according to President Donald Trump.
He made this announcement recently in Atlanta as he outlined his “Platinum Plan,” which is a series of proposed policies meant to aid the African American community and presumably encourage its members to support Trump’s reelection bid.
Whatever his reasoning, the platform aims to increase access to capital for African American-owned businesses, and create more jobs, more affordable healthcare and ensure safer communities for African Americans. Within the platform are numerous other bullet points, but one in particular caught my eye: “Examine barriers to employment including fees, occupational licensing, arrest record inaccuracy and expungement.”
For years, I have been harping on the impediments created by occupational licenses and unnecessary burdens caused by our justice system. While Trump appears to understand this, because of our system of government, addressing the bulk of these issues primarily requires state—not federal—legislative action. However, perhaps having a sitting president admitting the inherent flaws within occupational licensing regimes and the justice system will be the catalyst for further change.
As of August, Georgia’s unemployment rate hovered around 5.6 percent—in part—because of what the COVID-19 pandemic has done to the economy, but that only tells part of the story. Many people either cannot join the workforce or are underemployed because of governmental impediments, like the ones President Trump mentioned.
One of these barriers is occupational licensing regimes. They serve as government-mandated licenses to work in specific professions, but they prevent people from joining the workforce unless they clear numerous hurdles. In fact, government statutes and licensing boards require prospective employees to meet various requirements—many that have little to do with the occupation—before being allowed to work. This is the case for many professions, including librarians, cemetery plot salespeople, auctioneers, etc.
Licensing requirements aren’t easy to meet either. Georgia often requires hundreds of hours of education, the passage of state exams and the payment of hundreds of dollars to the state before licensing applications can be finalized and approved. If an applicant cannot afford this, then too bad; You don’t get the government’s permission to work in your chosen field. While licensing regimes are sometimes justified as protecting the public, this isn’t always true. Studies have demonstrated that increased licensing standards do not result in safer services, but rather about 2.85 million fewer jobs around the country.
These aren’t the only barriers preventing many from working. Vague language in the Georgia code and individuals’ backgrounds can too. Prior convictions—whether they are related to jobs for which applicants are applying or not—can in some cases ensure that many employers will reject applications. Further muddling the matter, the State of Georgia permits many licensing boards to withhold professional licenses if they deem an applicant to be a person who is not of “good moral character”—something that is wholly ambiguous and seems as though it could open the door to discrimination and other misbehavior.
While there’s no silver bullet for all of these issues, there are steps that Georgia can take to alleviate them. First, lawmakers ought to consider responsibly lowering licensing requirements for some professions so that the underprivileged don’t face greater difficulties entering the job market. The state could also consider adopting the New Mexico consumer choice model, which permits some people to work without a license so long as customers acknowledge this and accept the potential risks.
Second, legislators need to tackle criminal backgrounds. They can begin by removing nebulous “good moral character” language from the code and adopting Clean Slate legislation. The latter automatically expunges certain individuals’ criminal records—excluding violent and sexually related crimes—if they are rehabilitated and haven’t reoffended for several years. This could prove critical too. Studies have shown those with criminal records are less likely to get a job interview, given that 90 percent of employers conduct criminal screenings, and the Brennan Center recently found that “underemployment related to imprisonment or conviction reduces people’s wages by as much as $372.3 billion annually.”
The truth is that President Trump is on to something. The nexus of occupational licensing and criminal justice is key to helping people more easily get established, but the fix won’t come from the federal government. It will likely come from the states, and if enacted, all of the aforementioned proposals would greatly aid not just African Americans, but all Georgians.
Marc Hyden is the director of State Government Affairs at the R Street Institute, and he is a long-time Georgia resident. You can follow him on Twitter at @marc_hyden.