Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., just introduced a federal bill to deliver reparations. Booker, like other Democrats running for the presidency, thinks the modern equivalent of 40 acres and a mule will right the wrongs of slavery and lock down the black vote in 2020.
This is a pipe dream to placate the black community rather than a serious policy proposal.
Reparations are not what’s needed to strengthen the financial position of black Americans or build wealth in the long run — opportunity is. Reforming occupational licensing regimes, which lock blacks and those with criminal records out of work opportunities and entrepreneurship, would be a good place to start and help far more people.
The Impossibility of Slavery Reparations
A massive challenge of reparations is determining who's eligible to receive them. Proponents advocate compensating the “unpaid labor” of millions of slaves as well as “the compounding legacy of slavery, Jim Crow laws, discrimination in mortgage lending, and a race-based system of mass incarceration” which created wealth for white America (including European immigrants) at the expense of blacks.
I am a black immigrant whose parents chose to come to America in 1985. Would I qualify for reparations? My son is the child of two black immigrants and was born in 2018. Would he qualify?
Do you just have to identify as black? Then I should qualify, as would Rachel Dolezal, who has no known African ancestry.
If a black person must trace their ancestry to U.S. slavery, are there authentic and reliable records to verify lineage? How do you treat mixed black Americans? How many generations into the future would the United States need to compensate?
Even if the government could determine how many people would receive reparations, it would have to grapple with the price tag and find a funding source.
University of Connecticut researcher Thomas Craemer recently calculated that reparations could cost up to $14 trillion.
Imagine what kind of bureaucratic octopus and astronomical expense would be needed to figure out and dispense reparations.
Reparations Won’t Work
Advocates propose different ways to provide reparations including social-welfare programs, subsidizing home mortgages, free college tuition, endowments for historical and cultural institutions, more monuments, and national history education programs. The most popular recommendation is a large lump sum of cash.
There’s no guarantee that another government check would improve the economic standing of black America overnight or even within a generation.
Like winning the lottery, sudden wealth exacerbates bad financial habits. That’s why so many lottery winners go bankrupt.
Historical evidence tells the same story. Following an 1832 land lotteryin Georgia, the sons of winners ended up no better in terms of wealth, income, or literacy than the sons of nonwinners. Their grandchildren also didn’t have better educational attendance and outcomes.
A Better Way Forward: Occupational Licensing Reform
Reparations would deliver a free check or benefit, but they likely won’t set those in struggling black communities on a path to success. A career, however, delivers both income and opportunity for economic mobility.
Black unemployment is already at historically low levels and incomes are steadily rising. However, there are barriers to work for many in the black community that have nothing to do with race but everything to do with government policy. Reforming laws to create more opportunity is the best path forward. Reforming occupational licensure policies is the place to start.
Occupational licenses are simply permission slips granted by state government to allow people to work in a profession. In 1950, one in 20workers needed a license; today, it’s one in four.
For some professions, licenses are critical because they demonstrate the appropriate level of training and experience to do a job, in other professions they are completely unnecessary. Think of surgeons versus web developers or florists.
Even licenses that seem appropriate may demand needlessly costly, time-consuming, and irrelevant training. These artificial barriers to entry particularly harm low-income workers, who are less able to afford the education costs or the lost wages to fulfill educational requirements. Work licensure restricts employment opportunities.
Unfortunately, excessive occupational licensing requirements often fall disproportionately on blacks, other minorities, and the poor — groups who need work and careers most. For example, barber licensing reduces the probability of a black person working as a barber by 17.3%. Black or Hispanic interior designers are 30% less likely to hold a college degree compared to white designers. So mandating a college degree for interior designers excludes many minorities.
Occupational licenses pose an even larger barrier for workers with criminal records. Individuals with felonies are ineligible for thousands of professional licenses and certifications. Because blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately affected by the justice system, they face greater hurdles to work or start their own business, making it more likely they will recidivate.
Hair braiders, barbers, home health aides, and child daycare workers are just a few of the occupations that can deliver solid middle-class livings with stable career prospects for the future.
Instead of pushing for a payout, Booker and other Democratic presidential hopefuls should encourage states to eliminate or reform occupational licenses, as dozens of states have done already. Where possible, they can also advocate for federal reforms that allow licenses to be portable across state lines.
We don’t need forty acres and a mule. We need a chance at honest work and upward mobility.