America’s founders recognized that commerce requires a common infrastructure.
By Katherine McFate / Other Words
Did you know that when you ship a package through Federal Express, the U.S. Postal Service often carries it the last mile?
Last year, the Postal Service delivered 1.4 billion packages for FedEx and UPS. In fact, it delivers the last mile for almost a third of FedEx packages. The 618,000 Postal Service workers also delivered nearly 66 billion pieces of first-class mail — that’s more than 100,000 pieces per carrier.
The Postal Service can reach all 150 million American households because it’s a public system that we’ve been investing in for over 200 years. Our Constitution tasked the federal government with creating a national postal system and told the Postmaster General to report to the president.
But in 1971, Congress made the service into an “independent agency” managed by a board of governors. And since then, it’s been under attack by politicians who never met a public program they liked.
Yes, the rise of UPS, FedEx, and the Internet has created new challenges for your local post office. But the purported “fiscal crisis” is a manufactured one.
In 2006, Congress required the Postal Service — known as USPS for short — to “pre-fund” 75 years of its retirees’ health benefits. This added $5.7 billion to its costs last year.
No other private company or federal agency has to pre-fund retirement health care benefits. If they did, many corporations would run huge deficits or tumble into bankruptcy. Without these retiree health payments, USPS would actually turn a profit.
Using the deficit created by this requirement as an excuse, the USPS board of governors is closing distribution centers, cutting worker hours, eliminating delivery routes, and slashing jobs. Over the past five years, USPS has cut 94,000 positions.
The job loss alone is a travesty, but a bigger principle is at stake.
Our nation’s founders understood that a universal, affordable, and yes, public postal system helps knit us together as a nation. They recognized that commerce requires a common infrastructure and public institutions that belong to and benefit the entire country.
Instead of shrinking the Postal Service, we should build on it. That means, first of all, appreciating that the USPS can be much more than a delivery service.
In many small towns, the local post office continues to be a community hub, a place to meet neighbors and get news. And postal carriers don’t just deliver letters — they often keep an eye on the elderly and homebound, and alert first responders if things look amiss.
They could do even more. The Postal Service’s fleet of vehicles — the largest in the country — could be equipped to detect air pollutants and report potholes, water leaks, and other infrastructure repair needs.
Why stop there?
The USPS could raise tens of billions of dollars each year by reinstating post office savings accounts and banking services, which it efficiently provided for 55 years in the first half of the 20th century.
Customers received 2-percent interest on their savings accounts, and the post office loaned their money to community banks, which then made loans to local businesses. This virtuous circle benefitted the entire community. At its peak, 4 million Americans took advantage of these services, saving $36 billion in 2014 dollars.
Today, 34 million American families live in places without traditional banking services. High-interest payday lenders and check-cashing services charge low-wage working families in those communities an average of over $2,400 a year. Experts estimate that low-cost banking services could save American workers a trillion dollars a year.
Instead of selling off the assets we built together over two centuries, let’s invest in our Postal Service — a public system that has served our nation since its birth.
Katherine McFate is the President and CEO of the Center for Effective Government in Washington (foreffectivegov.org).
bob dorn says
Federal postal service, the schools, national health care, public transportation, the VA… are under attack by a rightwing that truly wants to defeat all federal programs (save the military and intelligence”. GOP legislators will say corporations are more efficient, but have you ever tried to reach your auto insurance company on their 1-800 line? Ever tried to argue about coverage with your private health care provider? Ever tried to get a job after giving up money to a for-profit “university”?
John Lawrence says
It’s time to realize that every public institution is under attack. Given their way, Republicans would privatize them all with all the implications thereof. They would no longer “serve” the public. They would be profit making enterprises devoted to serving the bottom corporate line. We should dwell on the differences, the pros and cons, of private vs public institutions, and, if public institutions are worth saving, we need to fight for them and educate the public as to why they are important.
As far as the Post Office, there are many ways it could be upgraded to compete better with UPS and FedEx. Around here the UPS and FedEx “stores” offer so many more services in a nicer atmosphere than the Post Office which seems like a poor cousin in comparison. Stationery supplies, for instance, are in much better and more numerous stock. The Post Office needs to get with it and upgrade its image beyond just a bare bones provider of basic services, something it does very well. But that is not sufficient any more.
I SO much agree – and then some – with your criticism of the USPS. Their workers have a terrible attitude, customer service is almost non-existent, prices keep rising for same or diminished services (like my PO box).
That being said, no private delivery company could possibly deliver individual mail as USPS does. The current system needs to be modernized and improved. And yes – Congress MUST rescind the unfair pension requirement.
bob dorn says
Both of you sound like people who don’t like to do their own dishes. I don’t go to the P.O. to be soothed. I go to mail a letter.
John Lawrence says
Face it, Bob, they’re in competition with the private package delivery services. When the competition presents a polished and pleasant space to the customer, the Post Office needs to do so as well or lose out.
bob dorn says
If the PO offered greeting cards, abundant air conditioning and young pretty people behind the counter the conservatives asking you “how are you” the men in suits would be screaming about government waste. The letter following yours, from Tom Cairns, below, can tell you why there are no smiley faces at the P.O. People are being overworked there. For conservative legislators budget cuts on new hires are an easy call. The IRS is another agency being starved to death, with the consequence that more and more tax income is being lost because fewer audits are catching fewer criminals.
There you go again, making gratuitous negative comments. Yes, I hand-wash my household’s dishes.
Let me illustrate the shitty attitude of USPS. Some time ago, I went to UPS to send a package and took our great little (10 pound) doggy along. We went in and the people there were welcoming of him and even offered a doggy treat.
Around the same time I also had him with me when I went to the post office. As we entered, without hardly even looking up, a person behind the counter loudly announced, “No dogs allowed, sir!”
Where would YOU rather go if you had the choice?
Tom Cairns says
I’ve got 41 years as a rural carrier with the USPS. Last week, on Thursday, I had 10 feet of letters, 6 feet of flats(catalogs and magazines), and 119 scans on parcels. Humboldt County doesn’t have the malls the bigger cities have, so a lot of people order items through the mail from places like Target, I. Magnin. Amazon is huge up here. Some days I have 50 Amazon parcels. I collect 40-50 Netflix every week.
The rural areas are short-changed, and with our processing of mail moving to Medford, Or on July 11th, service will be further reduced.
The rural part of America is getting the shaft when it comes to “service”.