Mail delivery was ingrained into American culture in the 20th century. Friends communicated by writing letters, household bills were received and returned by mail, and families sent post cards to their relatives while on vacation.
The role of the U.S. Postal Service has changed in the 21st century, however. E-mail and electronic business transactions have replaced communications via letter in many instances.
But for those who did not grow up playing computer games, who do not live in areas with reliable internet service, or who cannot afford the high costs of private delivery services, the postal service still plays an important role in their day-to-day lives. And even tech-savvy young adults receive important communiques in their mailboxes, while businesses rely on household delivery of advertisements.
The postal service is a unique enterprise, tasked by the federal government to deliver mail to all households and businesses. But unless significant steps are undertaken in the near future, the era of postal workers persisting through snow, rain, heat, or gloom of night could be coming to a close – and such an outcome will make the lives of many Americans more difficult and expensive.
As technology reduced the volume of mail and the costs of operations, particularly personnel costs, increased in the early 2000s it was obvious adjustments needed to be made to its business model. But a change the postal service did not need was legislation Congress passed in 2006 that has served to ruin the finances of the quasi-governmental organization.
The year 2006 was a time when private companies were reducing or eliminating employee benefits (which has subsequently contributed to the growing income gap in the United States). Many retiree plans of struggling businesses were severely underfunded, and retirees lost pensions and health benefits in numerous bankruptcy filings.
The Republican-dominated Congress acted to ensure benefits owed to postal service workers would be paid. But the method they used would undermine the financial stability of the organization for years to come, and suspicions still exist that private mail and package service providers used their allies in Congressional leadership to intentionally sabotage the postal service.
The 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act required the postal service to pre-fund retiree health benefits at a rate far exceeding any requirement placed on private businesses.
The costs of such a requirement, along with limitations on the cost of mailing letters and packages and other detrimental aspects of the legislation (detailed in a fascinating report produced by the Economic Policy Institute www.epi.org) put the postal service in a difficult financial position.
To add insult to injury, after years of financial struggles a new postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, was appointed in 2020. DeJoy, a long-time Republican Party fundraiser, ally of former President Donald Trump, and former CEO of a logistics company, immediately announced numerous cost-saving measures, which included delivery delays and reducing mail sorting equipment.
DeJoy’s initiatives seemed intentionally designed to eliminate public confidence in the ability of the post office to deliver mail in a timely fashion and advance the case for complete privatization of the postal service. Under his “leadership” Americans can no longer be sure something they dropped in a mailbox would arrive at its destination and we play a guessing game about whether mail will be delivered every day.
One of the major disappointments of the Biden Administration has been its inability to alter this situation. Almost two years after Biden’s election, DeJoy is still the postmaster general and the presidentially appointed Postal Service Board of Governors, which has the authority to remove DeJoy, has not acted to do so.
Meanwhile, Americans who still use the mail to pay bills, vote, receive publications, or communicate with others grow more frustrated. And anti-government activists, who accelerated the postal service’s problems, now cynically point to it as an example of government failure.
Congress passed legislation earlier this year to begin the effort to rehabilitate the postal service, which included the elimination of the onerous rate of pre-funding retiree health benefits. But it is going to take bolder action, starting with the removal of the postmaster general, to reassure Americans who rely on mail delivery that it will continue to be a regular part of their lives.
Some steps could be unpopular. Increasing first-class postage rates and cutting mail delivery from six days a week to five would undoubtably be criticized by many. But these changes, combined with lifting restrictions on services the postal service provides which compete with private carriers, could stabilize its financial situation.
Too much of our focus as Americans is on making as much money as possible and too little is devoted to maintaining the public good. The postal service is part of the public good of the United States and we need to protect it from those who would profit by its demise.
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