Occupational Licensure and the New Dark Ages

If you find yourself “between jobs” in Florida, you may notice job postings paying up to $11.85 per hour for a funeral attendant. The posting says you would be responsible for “placing a casket in a parlor or chapel prior to service, arranging floral offerings or lights around casket, directing or escorting mourners, and closing a casket.” If you are squeamish, you would be pleased to hear that embalming or cremating are tasks handled by the funeral director or the embalmer.

Depending on your interest, you might consider applying. If you don’t already have a funeral attendant license, you will need to obtain one. A license will require high school graduation or equivalent and on the job training at a funeral home. The educational requirements are scant and the work that an attendant performs is so mundane that attendants’ work poses no risk to public health or safety. We have to question why a license for a funeral attendant would be needed.

Occupational licenses are required for funeral attendants, eyebrow-threaders, florists, and another 99 low and moderate income occupations across the 50 states. “On average these licenses force aspiring workers to spend nine months in education or training, pass one exam and pay more than $200 in state licensing fees. One-third of the licenses take more than a year to earn.”

A few occupational licenses may be needed to protect public safety and health (e.g. for Emergency Medical Technician or for Pre-School Teacher), but many occupations pose no public safety or health risk (e.g. Floor Sander, Painting Contractor, and Travel Agent). When license requirements are imposed on the 102 low income occupations, it creates a financial burden on workers that is neither matched by benefits to the public nor by income to the licensed workers.

About one in three of today’s workers need government permission to pursue their line of work. States sometimes collect large fees to issue a license (e.g. Arizona averages $450), and that is after the worker meets the educational and experience requirement (e.g. pre-school teachers must acquire an average of 1,728 days of training).

The occupational licensure system has created an iron grip over low income Americans reminiscent of the control that medieval guilds held over local consumers and workers. In the 11th century, guilds flourished as artisans operating under regal charter that granted them exclusive rights to control specific areas of commerce. The parallel between regal charters and license granting government agencies is strong. Both suppress innovation by forcing new entrants to copy the standard work practice of those already licensed, and both impose a financial burden on new entrants.

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