By Mark Falanga
What can stop the mail? If you look at the front of the James A. Farley Post Office on Eighth Avenue in New York City, it will tell you “Neither snow, nor rain not heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
A very impressive list, but it leaves one out “changing times.” As more and more things in our lives become digital, many feel that there’s no longer a need for a national postal system, and what was once an institution in our country has felt the ramifications of this.
Activity at the United States Postal Service reached a peak in 2006 with its handling of 96 billion pieces of first class mail. In 2012, that number dwindled to 78 million pieces, and it is expected to drop to half of that by the year 2020.
Despite the bad news, the service they provide is a great value. For 46 cents, a government employee will take an ounce of paper from your house and deliver it through a network of buildings, planes, and trucks to anywhere in the United States — and they mean anywhere. In the remote village of Supai, Arizona, mail is packed in bags and sent down by a mule train.
If the address is wrong, or the letter can’t be delivered for some reason, the Postal Service will send it back to you free of charge. What other service can do that for you at such a low cost? Despite this, they are still losing money, and most importantly, customers.
The United States Postal Service handles 160 billion pieces of mail, including packages,” Hutkins tells BTR. “And what the public doesn’t realize is that there are some people out there who depend on this service.”
Those people tend to come from extremely rural areas. For example, citizens in rural towns in Alaska depend on the Postal Service for such items as medicine, vehicle parts, and even food. If the Postal Service were to close a post office or not deliver on Saturdays, the village would have to be abandoned along with millions of dollars worth of already existing infrastructure.
But the Postal Service faces many obstacles in its comeback. “First, the recession of 2007 played a role in the drop of mail volume,” says Hutkins, “Also, probably the biggest obstacle is the fact that Congress passed a law saying that the Postal Service has to pre-fund future retiree benefits.”
That last point is one that Frederic Rolando, President of the National Association of Letter Carriers, agrees with. “It is that unique burden that the Postal Service is ‘defaulting’ on — and what’s ironic is that the USPS already has $45 billion set aside for future retiree health benefits, enough to cover all such expenses for several decades, which no other institution can say,” Rolando told The Washington Post.
As if the recession and the Retiree Health Benefits Fund law weren’t enough, the Postal Service faces a third problem.
“There are some people who just don’t want the Postal Service to succeed,” says Hutkins, “It’s their way of saying ‘look, big government doesn’t work.’ Plus, it brings revenue to the private sector.”
Hutkins later explained that the biggest mail pre-sorter besides the United States Post Office is a company called Pitney-Bowes. Pre-sorting mail is so profitable for them that they have even pressed Congress to privatize the Postal Service.
So how can the Postal Service return to profitability?
“First and foremost, Congress needs to change the Health Benefits law,” says Hutkins. “Also, around 13,000 small post offices are only open six, four and in some cases two hours per day… and they’re staffed by part-time employees who don’t have the wealth of knowledge that post masters have.”
Hutkins also mentioned that the Postal Service needs better advertisements in order to connect with the younger generations. Though they may not send as many letters as their parents once did, they are visiting the post office roughly the same amount, due to buying goods on the internet.
So it seems this service has adapted to provide a new generation with deliveries. If Congress retracts the Retiree Health Benefits requirement, the Postal Service could be poised for a real comeback. Just as entertainment theorists predicted that television would destroy the movie theater, the digital age has yet to stop the Postal Service from swift completion of their appointed rounds.