For the past forty years, Republicans have been seeking to starve, strangle, and sabotage the U.S. Postal Service, hoping to privatize one of the oldest and most important public goods in American history.Photograph by Dan Brouillette / Bloomberg / Getty
I am probably one of the least consequential things my mother has ever delivered. She has two other daughters, for starters—one’s a public servant and the other is a special-education teacher. But she’s also spent her working life delivering love letters, college acceptances, medications, mortgage papers, divorce filings, gold bars, headstones, ashes, and care packages. In her thirty-eight years as a rural letter carrier with the United States Postal Service, she’s delivered just about everything you can legally send through the mail.
For twenty-seven of those years, she’s driven the same fifty miles five or six days every week, starting out at the post office and tracing Rural Route 5, bringing letters and packages to her five hundred and forty-five customers. Her best advice from all that driving is to carry duct tape, which can fix anything, and can even be made into a leash if you happen to find a lost dog. Her best day, she says, was a few years ago, when a retirement community got added to her route—a hundred and fifty-seven new customers, with stories and the time to tell them. The retirement home comes early in her fifty miles, but some days she stops again on her way home for longer visits, or heads back there on weekends for birthdays and anniversaries or to welcome someone home from the hospital.
My mother is so close with so many of the people who live along her route that they have always felt like second or third cousins to me—people I knew I was related to even if I didn’t see them very often. Mr. R. sent books home with her for me to read; the E. family pulled her jeep out of a snow drift and towed her back to the post office when her brakes failed; the F. family lost two children when their house burned down; Mrs. M. baked her bread and gave her iced tea in a to-go cup; the B. family had some landscaping work they wanted my father to do—and on and on through the years, a litany of routine or unexpected celebrations and tragedies and kindnesses. In the course of almost four decades, my mother has watched babies she saw come home from the hospital grow into adults who mail their parents Christmas letters with photographs of their own children, wondered whether a husband or wife or neither will stay in their house after a marriage ended, and seen grandchildren take over wheat farms from their grandparents.
Being a rural letter carrier suits my mother, and it enabled her to provide for a family like ours: it is a union job, with protections and benefits, insurance and vacation days, only modest raises but occasional overtime and reliable, transparent wages. It isn’t all wonderful; I was an adult before I noticed that the official vehicles she and her fellow-carriers drive do not have air-conditioning, and that her joints are already arthritic, her knees busted, her shoulders and back chronically sore, her gait wobbled by the wear and tear caused by hefting fifty-pound packages of dog food and forty-pound boxes of cat litter that are supposedly cheaper on Amazon than they are at the local store. Still, it is a better job than she thought she would ever have, and it allowed her to keep us in braces, allergy shots, X-rays, books, clothes, and movies. Eventually, it got her credit good enough to get us savings accounts and credit cards and loans.
My father, who is older and had been working longer than my mother had, was a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers; my mother joined the National Rural Letter Carriers’ union as soon as she was eligible. They knew that whatever they hoped for their children, they themselves would always be labor, not management. So we were a union family: my parents spent a few nights a year at local meetings, and if we went on vacation it was to wherever the annual union convention was held that year—usually the beach near where we lived, in Maryland, although one year we drove all the way to Maine. While we three watched the miracle that was cable television or played mini-golf with Dad, my mother put on her Sunday best and spent her days doing what I later learned a lot of other people’s parents did all the time: attend meetings. To me, my mother suddenly seemed like an executive.
Unions are the most powerful advocate people like my parents have. That power is one of the reasons that, although the U.S.P.S. is by far the most popular government agency, it is the one most often threatened with extinction. My mother is about to retire, and I worry that the agency she has spent her life serving will be retired soon, too. The coronavirus, which has decimated the global economy, has not spared the Postal Service—and while shipping and package volume are on the rise, standard and bulk mail have plummeted, leaving the U.S.P.S. with increasing deficits. But if the coronavirus kills the Postal Service, its death will have been hastened, as so many deaths are right now, by an underlying condition: for the past forty years, Republicans have been seeking to starve, strangle, and sabotage it, hoping to privatize one of the oldest and most important public goods in American history.
Before they declared their independence, the American colonists decided that they needed a better way to communicate with one another. In the summer of 1775, at the Second Continental Congress, they created the Postal Service and named Benjamin Franklin its first Postmaster General. Where before letters or packages had to be carried between inns and taverns or directly from house to house, now there was a way for Americans to safely, discreetly, and reliably correspond across long distances. After the Revolution, when Congress ratified the Articles of Confederation, legislators included the Post Office in the ninth of those articles, and later enshrined it in the first article of the Constitution.
The Founders saw the Postal Service as an essential vehicle for other rights, especially the freedom of the press: one of the first postal laws set a special discounted rate for newspapers. But they also understood that a national post unifies a nation, allowing its citizens to stay connected and connecting them with their federal government. When Alexis de Tocqueville toured the young country several decades after its founding, he travelled partly by mail coach, noting in “Democracy in America” how “the mail, that great link between minds, today penetrates into the heart of the wilderness.”
But the mail didn’t just follow American settlers into the wilderness—it also led to the transformation of the frontier. The constitutional authority that created the Postal Service allowed for the construction of post roads to link faraway cities; eventually, these ran all the way from Florida to Maine. A few of those essential byways survive, some of them obvious in their names, like the Old Albany Post Road and the Boston Post Road. Later, that authority was interpreted more broadly to justify federal investment in railroads and highways. During its long history, the Postal Service has delivered the mail by pony express, mule train, float planes, ferry boats, motorcycles, skis, hovercrafts, and pneumatic tubes. There were only seventy-five post offices at the nation’s founding, but by the time the Civil War started there were more than twenty-eight thousand spread around the country.
Two of the most popular features of the Postal Service today were surprisingly late innovations. Before 1847, it was hard to be a philatelist in the United States, because letters and packages were stampless: the postage was paid on sending or on arrival. It took nearly seventy years after its founding for the Postal Service to design adhesive, prepaid postage, in the form of a five-cent stamp featuring Benjamin Franklin and a ten-cent stamp featuring George Washington. For an even longer time, the mail was delivered only between post offices, leaving customers to retrieve it themselves (which is why those offices regularly appear as a central setting in early American literature) or to rely on private firms for door-to-door delivery. But, midway through the Civil War, Congress passed a law providing for home delivery within cities, and Americans suddenly started putting street addresses on their letters, so that carriers could bring them right to the recipient’s door. By 1923, the service was so popular that all patrons were required to have mail slots by their doors or boxes by the road, so that carriers could stop waiting so long for customers to answer the door in order to hand off the mail.
Another one of the Postal Service’s most popular innovations has faded from public memory. For more than fifty years, local post offices functioned as community banks. Starting in 1911, the Postal Savings System allowed all Americans to deposit money at their local post offices, which then reinvested the holdings in local independent banks at set interest rates—originally two and a half per cent, with two per cent going back to the saver, and a half per cent covering the cost of the program. Private banks were the chief beneficiaries of the scheme, but, because they did not want competition for high-level accounts, the deposits were capped at a few hundred dollars. Millions of Americans, most of them immigrants or people without the means for private banking, opened savings accounts with a minimum deposit of one dollar. At the height of postal banking, in 1947, four million people had deposited more than three billion dollars. Many of the communities served by the Postal Savings System were working-class or minority neighborhoods with no private banks. Eventually, though, the caps on deposits deterred customers, the fixed interest rates made the accounts less competitive than private alternatives, and banks lobbied for the end of postal banking. In 1967, they succeeded. While it lasted, though, postal banking demonstrated one of the Postal Service’s founding ideals: serving all Americans without prejudice or favor, no matter their zip code.
The Postal Service was plagued by patronage scandals for part of its history: as often happened with other political appointments, lucrative postal positions were sometimes doled out as favors. But, just as the U.S.P.S. had always been for its customers, it eventually became one of the nation’s most egalitarian institutions for employment. Postal alumni include Abraham Lincoln and John Brown, Richard Wright and William Faulkner, John Prine and Brittany Howard—men and women from every state, from all circumstances, with little education or lots of it, working for a few hours a week or decades of full-time service, as clerks at the office, city carriers, rural carriers, tractor-trailer drivers, postal inspectors, sorters, delivery specialists, and postmasters. Today, the U.S.P.S. comprises nearly a quarter of the entire federal workforce. Nearly half of its six hundred and thirty-three thousand employees are people of color, and more than a hundred thousand are veterans. Together, the workers staff thirty-two thousand post offices and nearly five hundred processing and distribution centers. They handle a hundred and forty-two billion pieces of mail each year—nearly half of all the mail in the entire world.
With a lot of advertising and business correspondence going digital, mail volume in America was decreasing for years before the coronavirus arrived, even as package delivery soared thanks to the growth of online commerce. But the pandemic brought a much sharper dip: in April, Postmaster General Megan Brennan testified before Congress that volume is down nearly a third from what it was this time last year, and that, according to an agency estimate, it will fall by half by the end of June. More of us are shopping online during the pandemic, and we are shopping for more things, but many businesses have stopped advertising, billing, and shipping—all services conducted by mail. Without that bulk and business mail, the Postal Service expects to lose thirteen billion dollars in revenue this fiscal year.
Brennan was describing the agency’s circumstances to Congress not because the federal government funds the Postal Service—it doesn’t—but because it controls the Postal Service. Congress sets the postage rates, regulates which services the agency can offer, and legislates the rules for how it operates. Universal delivery is constitutionally mandated, and any time that a post office is closed or the cost of any service is raised, the change requires congressional approval. Federal oversight of the Postal Service took its current form following a strike in 1970, when, after eight days of disrupted service, President Richard Nixon changed the U.S.P.S. from a Cabinet department into an independent government agency. The idea was for the Postal Service to run more like a corporation, with direct congressional oversight but without taxpayer funding. At the same time, in exchange for collective-bargaining rights, postal employees agreed never to strike again.
By 1982, the Postal Service was operating entirely without federal money, and for a quarter of a century the new arrangement worked. But, in 2006, Republicans in a lame-duck session of Congress passed a law preventing the Postal Service from raising its rates for regular mail service by more than the Consumer Price Index. This change meant that, no matter the spike in fuel prices for the agency’s vehicles, leases for its cargo flights, health insurance for its workers, or any other operating expense, the agency could not charge more than a few additional cents for its services every year. That’s why your stamps still cost only fifty-five cents, and package-shipping rates are so much less than private alternatives. The regulatory change was seen as a gift to the Postal Service’s competitors, who spend tens of millions of dollars lobbying Congress, and who take advantage of the cheaper rates by contracting some of their own deliveries back to the U.S.P.S.
That same law also mandated that the Postal Service pre-fund its employee-pension and retirement costs, including health care, not just for one year but for the next seventy-five years—an even more crippling requirement. The year that mandate passed, the U.S.P.S. had nine hundred million dollars in profits. It has not had a profitable year since. The annual cost of those pre-funded retirement benefits is more than five billion dollars, and critics of the mandate point out that the Postal Service is the only employer forced to fund retirement accounts for employees who haven’t yet been hired—or even born. Finally, after thirteen years of trying to repeal that mandate, Democrats got halfway there this February, when the House of Representatives voted to do so, but the bill has stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Postmaster General Brennan’s congressional testimony came after that repeal effort, and she noted the budgetary relief that would come from allowing the agency to return to pay-as-you-go retirement. That alone will not make the agency profitable, though; it is currently on track to run out of money by the end of September, and could potentially cease operations. Brennan requested eighty-nine billion dollars from Congress to shore up the Postal Service’s finances for the next few years. That figure includes twenty-five billion to cover revenue lost during the pandemic; another twenty-five billion to upgrade infrastructure such as offices, sorting facilities, and the fleet of delivery vehicles; fourteen billion to pay off debt related to the retirement mandate; and another twenty-five billion in unrestricted borrowing should the agency need it.
It’s a sizable investment, although, to put it in perspective, Congress has already given the private airline industry fifty billion dollars, when only half of the country takes a commercial flight in any given year. By contrast, the Postal Service provides critical services to every American every day, and is continuing to do so during this current crisis: facilitating the constitutionally mandated national census; distributing a hundred and thirty million copies of the C.D.C. guidelines for coronavirus safety; handling vote-by-mail efforts for primaries around the country (and almost certainly again this fall, for the Presidential election); and, in addition to all the usual mail, delivering groceries, wipes and disinfectants, and millions of prescriptions, including nearly all of those shipped by the Veterans Administration. The Postal Service does this well, a fact that is reflected in the nearly universal admiration it receives: ninety-one per cent of Americans have a favorable view of the U.S.P.S., higher than the approval for any other government agency. Among the populace, if not in Washington, it is seen just as favorably by Republicans as Democrats.
It’s not hard to understand why. Back when the parcel post first started, in 1913, offering extremely affordable rates even for comparatively heavy packages, people trusted the mail enough to send their children via U.S.P.S. (An Ohio couple paid fifteen cents to mail their baby to his grandparents who lived a few miles away; an Idaho family mailed their four-year-old seventy-three miles.) In 1958, when Harry Winston needed to get the Hope Diamond to the Smithsonian Museum, he used the Postal Service. (The postage cost less than three dollars, but for an extra hundred-some dollars he added a million dollars’ worth of insurance, just to be safe.) Encomiums about how neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night can stop the mail are true, but do not go far enough: carriers have also delivered through national crises, from the Unabomber’s explosives to the anthrax attacks. Today, during the coronavirus pandemic, many postal employees have continued delivering without gloves or masks or sanitizer, providing their own as the agency tries to secure adequate supplies. Already, more than sixteen hundred postal employees have been diagnosed with the virus, and thirty have died from it.
The majority of postal employees are unionized, and their collective-bargaining rights are one of the many aspects of the U.S.P.S. that President Trump has proposed cutting. Indeed, it is the enduring power of the postal unions, at a time when public-sector unions have been so successfully weakened, that makes the agency such an appealing target to conservatives. Two years ago, Trump convened a task force to assess the Postal Service’s future. Its recommendations included reducing worker wages and benefits, ending the agency’s universal service obligation to deliver to all Americans no matter how remote their location, closing post offices, eliminating delivery days, raising the price of stamps and package delivery, and subcontracting mail processing. Taken together, those are the likely steps on a path to privatization, which would fundamentally change the character of our mail. With a private system, you might pay fifteen times more to mail something to your cousin in Alaska than to your sister in New York City; a radical magazine might be denied distribution entirely; a small business in Montana might have to drive a hundred miles to ship the neon signs it manufactures. As it is, companies like UPS and FedEx contract out their “last mile” to the U.S.P.S. in many places, because delivering to remote areas is unprofitable.
What if, instead of less, the Postal Ofice was allowed to do more? It could offer consumer banking, the way that it once did—and the way that China, Japan, and more than a hundred other countries still do—with low-fee check-cashing and checking accounts, so that the millions of Americans who cannot afford traditional banking have an alternative to payday lenders and loan sharks. It could allow its carriers to provide regular, formal welfare checks and elder care for senior citizens, the way that French mail carriers already do (and that many American ones, including my mother, likewise do on an informal basis). It could supply public broadband around the country, meeting the overdue needs of rural and remote communities languishing without high-speed internet, making it a public utility the way that the city of Chattanooga has done for its citizens. U.S.P.S. employees could become notary publics for document signings, sell hunting and fishing licenses, and renew driver’s licenses and vehicle registration, as a kind of extension of other state and federal agencies. There are plenty of ways for the U.S.P.S. to bring in additional revenue, and this—along with being liberated from the pre-funding mandate for retirement benefits—would allow the agency to become profitable again.
But it’s worth remembering that, when the founders established the Postal Service, profitability was not the goal. As with public education and public libraries, self-sufficiency is not the measure of the agency’s success. Postal employees like my mother have always considered themselves public servants: they deliver the mail, but also tend to the common good. So much of what she has done on her rural routes six days a week for nearly forty years has had nothing to do with the envelopes she leaves in mailboxes or the packages she drops off on porches. Once, one of her elderly customers did not answer the door; her car was there, so my mother knocked on the doors and windows, then let herself inside and found the woman on the floor, stuck between her bed and the wall of her bedroom. She had been trapped there for two days, not able to get up, waiting for someone to find her.
Stories like that one are not uncommon, and it is good to hear the adjective “essential” finally being applied to the people, like my mother, who have long deserved it, people who work for less money and more hours than they should, performing what is sometimes disparagingly called “service work,” when that it is exactly what it is: an act of service. President Trump may deride the U.S.P.S. as “a joke,” but, in fact, it is one of our most important accomplishments. The founders were right to realize that the Postal Service isn’t only a way of moving thoughts and goods from every corner of America to any other, but also a way of uniting one of the largest and most diverse nations in the world. At a time when too few things connect us as a country, and too few of us have faith in our public institutions, we can’t afford to lose the one we trust the most.