The Post-Postal Society?

The U.S. Postal Service struggles to stay self-sufficient.


In 2006 the nation's vast army of postal clerks, letter carriers, and facer-canceler machines processed and distributed 213 billion pieces of mail. By 2010 that number had dropped to 170 billion, and according to forecasts commissioned by the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), the total will sink to 150 billion by 2020. In March 2010, postal administrators announced that the USPS could run up a cumulative deficit as high as $238 billion during the next decade. To cut expenses in the face of eroding revenues, the postal service floated the idea of reducing delivery to five days a week and stepped up its efforts to shutter underperforming post offices and branches. This year, it hopes to close as many as 2,000 of its approximately 32,000 outlets

When this sort of thing happens, the locals typically express…well, "outrage" might be too strong a word for it, but they definitely get mildly annoyed. In December 2010, for example, the USPS closed a post office located on the campus of the University of Oregon in Eugene. "I don't even know where I would go if it closes," a student told the campus newspaper. (There are seven other post offices in Eugene, including one less than a mile away from the university.) "I would never find another postal job as fun as this one," exclaimed a postal employee faced with moving to a new location.

All across America, in the small towns politicians like to iconize as citadels of self-sufficiency and can-do spirit, the lack of easy access to Pottery Barn catalogs and utility bills is threatening to tear things asunder. "This is how towns get broken," the author Bill McKibben wrote in a 2008 New York Times article when the USPS temporarily shut down the post office in his tiny hometown of Ripton, Vermont.

"We don't have much left in our small town…so it is nice to go up there and run into people that you wouldn't see otherwise," a resident of Tallula, Illinois, told the Associated Press in February 2011. "We have been hoping and praying [the postal service] doesn't close it," a resident of Crescent City, Illinois, lamented to USA Today the same month. "If we lose our post office, we're just about lost."

Closing a small-town post office, or even a couple thousand small-town post offices, isn't going to put much of a dent into the $8.5 billion deficit the USPS recorded in 2010 or the $3.8 billion deficit it racked up the previous year. The postal service's most pressing fiscal crisis arises from a provision in the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act that requires it to prefund its Retiree Health Benefits Fund at the rate of approximately $5.6 billion a year from 2007 to 2016; the agency has not been able to make those payments without running up huge deficits.

But if thousands of underperforming post offices are a relatively tiny albatross around the postal service's neck, they will no doubt continue to serve as a point of controversy as the agency tries to retool itself for a reduced role in the Internet age. 

Forty years ago, on July 1, 1971, the Post Office Department evolved into the United States Postal Service, a federal but independently operating entity that sustains itself with no direct support from taxpayers. (To cover years in which it operates at a deficit, it has a $15 billion credit line with the U.S. Treasury.) If the USPS wants to maintain its self-sustaining status in the face of declining demand for its most lucrative monopoly, first-class mail, it must shed personnel, streamline infrastructure, and cut services.

Every time the postal service resorts to such measures, it jeopardizes—or at least appears to jeopardize—its commitment to making the postal system as accessible, comprehensive, and democratic as possible. But if the USPS has a longtime mandate to serve the public interest, it also has a longtime mandate to make its own ends meet. Neither George Washington nor James Madison imagined that the government's general treasury would underwrite America's emerging mail system, the Columbia historian Richard R. John argues in "History of Universal Service and the Postal Monopoly," a 2008 paper commissioned by Congress. "Indeed, it was far more likely that they presumed, with Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, that the postal system might one day transfer a substantial surplus to the government as the British postal system had in Great Britain, and as the American postal system would for several decades after 1787."

The postal service's mandate of self-sustainability is often scorned by advocates who believe the government is failing any citizen who has to travel more than a mile to ship a batch of cookies to grandma at Christmas. But self-sustainability and serving the public can also be viewed as interdependent motives. If you aren't meeting the public's needs and expectations in some substantial way, you won't be self-sustaining for long. If you aren't self-sustaining, your ability to serve the public interest becomes contingent on the whims of politicians.

In the case of the postal service, it seems pretty clear that the infrastructure it developed to serve 19th-century America isn't quite as necessary in the 21st. In 1901 there were 76,945 post offices in the United States. Today there are 32,000, and if the postal service had free rein to purge as many as it saw fit, who knows how many would remain? But how many people would argue that it's harder for us to communicate with friends and family or to pursue long-distance business interests than it was for our forebears in 1901? Who would claim that we have less access to information than they did? The idea that the postal service's efforts to streamline its operations in pursuit of ongoing viability might somehow leave even small numbers of Americans in an information void is preposterous. We are the most tightly connected civilization in the history of humanity, and even an organization capable of deploying inefficiency on the scale achieved by the USPS can't change that.

Even postal preservationists end up undermining the utilitarian importance of post offices. In his 2006 book Preserving the People's Post Office, Christopher W. Shaw, a project director at Ralph Nader's Center for Study of Responsive Law, says the USPS serves as a symbol of "our nation's democratic aspirations by serving everyone equally" and provides a vital "community hub" where neighbors can bump into each other and trade small talk for a few minutes. In a similar vein, "A Framework for Considering the Social Value of Postal Services," a 2010 white paper prepared by the Urban Institute on behalf of the Postal Regulatory Commission, winds up arguing that post offices benefit communities in ways that have nothing to do with collecting or distributing mail. "Post offices bring increased foot traffic for nearby businesses," it reports in one section. "Some post offices are drop-off points for recycling cell phones and other goods," it advises in another.

So post offices are homey but highminded emblems of democracy, bustling third spaces for towns too bucolically correct to tolerate a Starbucks (which are still outnumbered by post offices by a more than two-to-one margin). In the same way that Filson hunting jackets and chambray utility shirts have been recast as urban fashion, the post office is turning into a lifestyle prop, an authentic, old-timey example of "heritage" communications. And, of course, the most democratic place in the land to recycle your old cell phone when you upgrade to a Nokia E5 and its superior messaging capabilities. 

Contributing Editor Greg Beato (gbeato@soundbitten.com) writes from San Francisco.