Business Columns & Blogs

Why the Postal Service is under threat, and what should be done about it


Fredric Rolando, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers
Fredric Rolando, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers MCT

A recent opinion piece cast the problems with the U.S. Postal Service in a rather odd way – rural vs urban. The main issue, according to the author, is that the Heartland is experiencing slower mail deliveries “so that the U.S. Postal Service can deliver chocolates, flowers or teddy bears in San Francisco.”

There are various misconceptions floating around these days about the Postal Service (though few this creative) so perhaps it’s time for some straight talk about what the actual situation is.

Degradation of service affects everyone, whether you live in downtown Kansas City or rural Missouri. Or in San Francisco, for that matter. When mail-processing facilities are closed or consolidated, people face delays in mail they’ve sent or are expecting.

If Saturday mail delivery is eliminated, as some lawmakers in Washington D.C. propose, the small business you run in Manhattan, Kan., – or in Manhattan, N.Y., – won’t receive checks or orders on the weekend. And veterans, the elderly and millions of others will wait longer for their mail, whether government benefits or other important items.

Similarly, if door-to-door delivery ends, people everywhere will be compelled to traipse around neighborhoods, often in inclement weather, seeking a cluster box.

Bottom line: The threats to mail service are threats to everyone; they’re not limited to specific regions or types of people. The real question is why Americans’ mail service is under threat, and what can be done about it.

Conventional wisdom would say something like this – The Postal Service is losing billions of dollars a year because everyone’s on the Internet, plummeting mail volume is producing a tidal wave of red ink, taxpayers are on the hook for this, and so cuts in service are imperative.

But every part of that formulation is demonstrably false.

For starters, postal operations are profitable. You read that right. The Postal Service reported $1.4 billion in operating profits in Fiscal Year 2014, a figure already surpassed in fiscal 2015’s first half.

Why? After dropping during the worst recession in 80 years, mail revenue is stabilizing amid a gradually improving economy. Meanwhile, as folks in Kansas City and Springfield and elsewhere shop online, package revenue is skyrocketing; making the Internet a net positive and auguring well for the future.

Moreover, taxpayers aren’t involved with postal finances – by law, the Postal Service funds itself through revenue it earns selling stamps and services. So this operating profit is generated without a dime of taxpayer money.

There is red ink at the Postal Service, but it has nothing to do with the mail or the Internet. Rather, it stems from Washington politics. In 2006, a lame-duck Congress mandated that the Postal Service prefund future retiree health benefits. No other government agency or private company has to prefund for even one year; the Postal Service must prefund 75 years into the future and pay for it all over a decade. That $5.6 billion annual charge is the red ink.

Some in Washington hope to use this artificial financial “crisis” to achieve something they’ve long sought – to whittle away at a popular public agency (with approval ratings above 80 percent), perhaps even turn its duties over to private corporations.

To do so, they need you to believe that services you’ve long relied on are the problem – hence, that your mail must be slowed, your delivery days reduced, your door-to-door service ended.

But degrading postal networks that have returned to profitability defies common sense. It would needlessly hurt people, whether on farms, in small towns or in cities. It would hurt the Postal Service’s bottom line, by driving mail out of the system. It would ignore the actual problem – the prefunding mandate. And it would cost Missouri and Kansas jobs. The national mailing industry, dependent on a robust, six-days-a-week Postal Service, employs 7.5 million Americans in the private sector – including 165,343 Missourians and 84,957 Kansans.

And still more is at stake. The Postal Service, older than the country itself and based in the Constitution, unifies this vast nation. It’s the largest employer of veterans. Every day on their routes, letter carriers protect people and neighborhoods – saving elderly residents who’ve fallen or taken ill, removing people from burning cars after accidents, finding missing children or stopping crimes in progress. In May, letter carriers again conducted the country's largest single-day food drive, restocking food pantries in every community.

Missourians and Kansans should urge their congressional representatives to preserve the postal networks while addressing the prefunding fiasco. Then the Postal Service can continue to offer Americans, whether in our biggest cities or our smallest towns, the world's most-affordable delivery network.

Fredric Rolando is president of the National Association of Letter Carriers.