Neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet, nor hail shall keep the postman from his appointed rounds, the saying goes. But while the weather (even the arctic temperatures here in the Northeast; 6 degrees this morning) has not kept the mail from being delivered, some stark realities portend the end of the postal service as we know it. As the January 24th Wall Street Journal reports, half of the US’s post offices are operating at a deficit. In 2010, the postal service’s losses were a record $8.5 billion.
Think about it: When did you last visit the post office? Write a letter and mail it? How often have you used UPS or FedEx or another private courier service? Do you pay your bills electronically? (I do.) And is the mail you receive increasingly of the junk type, like the request for a contribution the Catholic Bishop of Northern Alaska (in Fairbanks) sent to my son Charlie?
(No, I have no idea how his name got on their mailing list.)
Since 1999, the postal service has trimmed its workforce by one-third. Besides such reductions in its work force, the postal agency has also considered raising rates and cutting services (no deliveries on Saturday).
Some lawmakers, including Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine), attribute the agency’s woes at least in part to its ‘overly generous employee benefits.’ According to a September study sponsored by the Office of Inspector General, postal workers pay ‘”significantly” lower premiums’ for their health and life insurance than other government employees because of union agreements. The report indeed noted that $700 million could be saved this year alone by asking employees to pay more, though the report also noted that the postal service’s own contributions into employee benefits are declining.
The postal service will start closing as many as 2000 post offices in March. This is on top of the 491 that were scheduled to be closed at the end of 2010. And another 16,000—-yes, half of the agency’s 32,000 brick-and-mortar offices—will be under review for closing. A disproportionate number of the offices slated for closure are in rural areas, some for whom the town post office has long served as a community center. As the Wall Street Journal notes, those who will be most adversely affected by the closure of so many post offices are often elderly and in small towns where internet access is not readily available and where the drive to the nearest (still open) post office can be several miles away.
As a comparison: In the UK, the government is planning to privatize the Royal Mail; one in three post offices may be closed.
I’m glad to ‘go green’ and forego paper bills and stamps—it’s far easier for me to pay the utility bill whenever I have a moment than to race to get to the post office after getting off from work and before my son’s school bus arrives. But I felt melancholy when learning that, a few years ago, our town’s post office would start operating at reduced hours. Like many Americans, I’ve not only assumed, but taken comfort in expecting that the post office is ‘just always there,’ and at the sight of our letter carrier (who is a great guy we’ve known for years) making his rounds.
As December 2010 article by David Morris in Guernica notes:
In the beginning, there was the post office. Before the Internet, before cable, before TV, before radio, mail delivery was our major means of mass communication. The founders of the United States understood its importance and deemed that it must be a public institution. Article I, Section 8, Clause 7, of the U.S. Constitution states, “Congress shall have Power to establish Post Offices and Post Roads.”
Originally, the ‘broader mission’ of the post office was more than ‘simply delivering letters—it was dedicated to spreading information as widely as possible.’ With that function handled increasingly by TV, radio, and, of course, the Internet, might the Postal Service one day become extinct?
Photo by floodllama.