On Wednesday, Patrick Donahoe, the Postmaster General of the United States, announced that the U.S. Postal Service will discontinue the delivery of first-class mail on Saturdays as part of an effort to cut costs at the cash-strapped agency. The changes, which are scheduled to take effect in August, will apply only to letters, and will not impact Saturday delivery of packages. The argument could be made that weekend letter delivery is a luxury most of us can live without. And for many people that is probably true; indeed Donahoe cited polls that find most consumers support the move.
But the decision to drop Saturday delivery was not made in a vacuum, and its implications don’t stop with an empty mailbox and an extra (unpaid) day off for letter carriers. It’s a symptom of the dire financial situation of a once-storied organization that was founded before the signing of the Declaration of Independence (right here in Philadelphia, by Benjamin Franklin) and inaugurated the very first information superhighway. It’s also a harbinger of a downhill slide that, if left unchecked, will spell the end of mail delivery as we know it.
Contrary to popular misconception, the U.S. Postal Service is not a federal agency. Not a single taxpayer dollar flows into its coffers; revenues are generated like any business: through the sale of products and services. And business hasn’t been great. While package delivery is up thanks to a rise in online purchases, the USPS has gotten walloped by email and online bill pay. Between 2008 and 2011, mail volume dropped 17.7 percent, knocking almost $1 billion off USPS revenues.
Most of us rely less than ever on the post office. My wife, who is in charge of such things, pays all of our bills online. On any given day, I throw away more mail than I keep. And the only regular trip I make to the mailbox is to drop off my Netflix returns (a trip that would be unnecessary if Netflix had better streaming options). Indeed, we buy a lot of products online, but at least half of them are delivered by a private service like UPS. The long, slow demise of the Postal Service probably won’t have that big of an impact on me.
One group that will almost certainly be impacted, however, are those living near or below the poverty line. These are the same people who are more likely to have a family member who is incarcerated or serving overseas in the military (circumstances where regular access to inexpensive mail services is essential), and to live in a neighborhood where there are few banks (many low-income consumers get money orders at the post office, which often charges less than check-cashing businesses). How about email and online bill pay? A Pew report last April found that 20 percent of Americans don’t even use the Internet. The majority are senior citizens, Spanish speakers, people with less than a high-school education, and those earning less that $30,000 a year.
Beyond reforming the Postal Service’s pension funding obligation—which can only do so much—there are other ways to help resuscitate the USPS without adversely affecting the people who rely on it the most.
For instance, why not give people like me, who rely less on snail mail, the option of cutting back on service, say to a three-day-a-week delivery schedule? I’m willing to bet there are even some people who would be willing to give it up entirely.
There are also proposals by some lawmakers to cut overhead by co-locating post offices in supermarkets or chain drug stores, and overturning an archaic provision that prohibits the USPS from shipping alcoholic beverages. These are all good proposals; given the chance, I’m convinced they will prove that a little ingenuity will do more to save the Postal Service than across-the-board cuts to products and services that many people still rely on.