I have worked for the USPS for 17 years as an auditor and have seen from the inside how the Postal Service works and what miracles it performs every day. Yes, it is deep in the red, but that is primarily because of burdens placed on it by the Congress plus a severe drop in mail volume—over 53 billion pieces since 2007. Yes, we have some mismanagement, but show me a major corporation that doesn't.
According to a Postal Service publication, the Postal Service is the only organization in the country that has the manpower, network infrastructure, and logistical capability to deliver to every residence and business in the U.S., its territories, and military personnel stationed across the globe almost every day.
Except for our financial situation, the Postal Service is not "broken" as some people allege. All of us still get our mail six days a week,1 and we can almost always count on our letters and packages getting delivered to the right address in a couple of days. Most of us feel cheated if we don't get at least one thing in our mailbox each day. Most of us also know and like our mail carrier.
The U.S Postal service has operated continuously since 1775, almost 240 years. Our first Postmaster was Benjamin Franklin. Since then, we have never stopped delivering the mail. And, the Postal Service is the only commercial organization expressly authorized in the United States Constitution. However, in its original form the U.S. Postal Service is actually older than both the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
Abraham Lincoln also served as a Postmaster from May 1833 to May 1836 in New Salem, Illinois. If a customer did not pick up his mail, Lincoln would personally deliver it, sometimes carrying the mail in his hat. During these three years, he was paid about $75 for his services. Presidents Harry Truman and William McKinley also served as a Postmaster and an Assistant Postmaster, respectively.
The Postal Service has not received one dime of taxpayer dollars in over 30 years.W e have to earn our money like any other business by selling our products and services. We have to do this while operating under restrictive government policies not imposed on private firms. We are not allowed the freedom to price our own products and services as we see fit, to close underused facilities which are not profitable, or to manage our operations without Congressional interference.
In 2006, the Congress passed the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act requiring the Postal Service to pay $5.5 billion per year into an account to pre-fund retiree health-care benefits for 75 years into the future within 10 years. No other federal agency or private business is required to do this. This mandate accounted for more than $12.5 billion of our $16 billion deficit in FY 2012, close to 80% of our net loss. If not for this burden, we could have been profitable for the past few years.
Every single man, woman, and child in America. We also serve our military troops at home and abroad in all parts of the world and on ships at sea. The U.S. Postal Service is the only mail provider serving the Army and Fleet Post Office military mail systems.
In many cities, especially small towns across America, the local post office is more than a place to drop off or pick up your mail. It is a part of the community's history and identity, often serving as a gathering place for local residents. Attempts to shut down small or non-profitable post offices in recent years have met with intense opposition and petitions to local congressmen to stop closures. The main Post Offices,In many of our older cities, are magnificent structures built in classical styles using marble, granite, brass, mahogany, and limestone. Hundreds of old post offices have been designated as historic buildings and added to the National Register of Historic Places.
The economic downturn since 2008 has had a major impact on the use of mail by businesses and private citizens, including retail, banking, financial, insurance, and industries. Additionally, due in part to automated bill paying, email, and electronic document delivery, mail volume has dropped by almost 25% in the past 6 years. But we still show up at your mailbox six days a week. We are taking strict measures to economize. From 2000 through 2005, the Postal Service achieved cost savings of almost $5 billion. In FY 2012 alone, the U.S. Postal Service's Office of Inspector General, its audit and investigative agency, issued reports identifying over $12 billion in potential cost savings and other financial impacts. In the past 10 years, we have reduced our workforce by more than 28%—from 729,000 career employees in 2003 to about 522,000 in 2012. How many other major companies could survive a drawdown in manpower this severe? And without any layoffs!
The Postal Service strives to stay on the leading edge of technological innovation. Since the 18th Century, we have used every emerging technology from the steamboat to high-speed mail sorting machines, from the railroads to optical character recognition, from the bush plane to intelligent mail barcodes. In fact, many of these new technologies have come about due to the ever-increasing demand for improvements in postal services. And more are coming, like eMailbox, digital concierge, hybrid mail, and reverse hybrid mail.
From 1860 to 1861, these legendary riders rode almost 2,000 miles from St. Joseph, Missouri to San Francisco in 10 days, helping to keep California in the Union after the Gold Rush of '49. These horsemen, many of them still in their teens, delivered news to the West of Lincoln's first election and inauguration as well as the outbreak of the Civil War.
Our Postal Service receives, processes, and delivers an average of 563 million pieces of mail per day. In 2012, we processed and delivered 160 billion letters, cards, packages, periodicals, and other items. We provide meaningful employment to over half a million Americans. In addition, the Postal Service is the largest employer of veterans, who make up more than 20% of its workforce. Minorities and women also make up a large percentage of the postal labor force, including over 26% and 29% in executive positions respectively. For over a hundred years, the Postal Service has provided middle class opportunities for hard working people who want to serve the public.
Postal clerks, mail handlers, letter carriers, managers, specialists, and other professionals are some of the hardest working people you will ever meet. They work under constant deadlines, physical stress, and ever-changing demands every day. If you think their jobs are easy, try spending just a couple of days doing what they do year in and year out. Most of us wouldn’t last a week.
Many have criticized our postal service for having a "monopoly" on mail delivery. This is true, but only for First-Class mail. This monopoly is more of a burden than a blessing because we have no choice. By law, we have to deliver to every address in America six days a week under the Universal Service Obligation. We deliver to 150 million addresses and PO boxes while adding more than half a million new addresses every year. No other organization can do this, and, even if they could, no business wants to take on First-Class Delivery because it's not profitable.
On the package side of the business (where the big profits are), we have to compete for business. We are up against some of the toughest businesses in America—FedEx, UPS, and others—and we are still holding a respectable share in this market. In fact, FedEx and UPS pay us to deliver more than 400 million of their ground packages every year in an initiative called “the last mile”. With the decline in overall mail volume, package delivery will very likely be our future.
We deliver more than 40% of the world's mail, serving international as well as domestic markets. We have an on-time delivery rate of 94% to 98% of the time depending on where you live. This is not "snail mail!
We bind the nation together in other ways too. At the end of the 19th Century, Rural Free Delivery (RFD) was established across the country. From 1896 to 1903, small and remote areas in 49 states and Washington DC were provided free delivery service. (Hawaii joined in 1918.) By 1910, 41,000 carriers traveled almost 1 million miles to bring rural Americans into more direct contact with the rest of the nation. At a cost of $37 million, this was one of the largest expansions ever undertaken by the Postal Service. With 32,000 post offices and other mailing centers, the Postal Service has a larger retail network than McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Wal-Mart combined!1
Stamp prices are historically below the rate of inflation, and we have the lowest stamp prices in the world. What other business can keep operating when by law they are only allowed to raise their prices by a penny or two, and only once every couple of years? Compare stamp prices with the rising prices of gas, groceries, etc. Then ask yourself why you complain about a penny increase in stamp prices every other year, while in one week the price of gas may go up 10 or 20 cents! For the price of a stamp, you can send your letter across a town or across the country. For the same price, we will deliver your mail to the remote villages of Alaska by dogsled or to the Havasupai Indians at the bottom of the Grand Canyon by mule train. When you look at it this way, the Postal Service is one of the best bargains in America.
Speaking of stamps, in 2012 alone the Postal Service printed almost 21 billion stamps. Stamps do much more than get your letter to its destination. Postage stamps tell the story of our history and society through the decades—people, presidents, cartoon characters, sports heroes and Olympic athletes, movie stars, natural wonders, flowers, and popular culture through countless pictures, portraits, and colorful designs.
For much of our history, stamp collecting (part of the official study of stamps known as philately) has been one of the great American hobbies. In fact, some collections are worth a fortune. Probably the most famous stamp in stamp-collecting history was the "Inverted Jenny" depicting the image of the Curtiss JN-4 airplane upside down. This 24-cent stamp was issued in 1918 to commemorate the first official airmail flights. The printing error was quickly corrected, and only 100 of these stamps slipped through quality control and made it out to the public. In 2007, a single "Upside Down Jenny" sold at auction for close to a million dollars!
Many people complain about waiting in line at the Post Office. But do you wait in line at the grocery store, the movie theater, the doctor’s office, the airport, and other service businesses? Why single out the Postal Service for this criticism?
What many of us call "junk mail" supports a large segment of our private sector economy. Major mailers and retailers, as well as local Mom and Pop businesses, depend on the Postal Service for their advertising, billing, and communications. You could say we are the backbone of the U.S. economy. Concerning “junk mail”, one man's trash is another man's treasure. The “junk” I throw away today (grocery coupons, retail flyers, solicitations, pizza specials, etc.) might be valuable to me tomorrow. And it is certainly valuable to the company that sends it out and gets your business (even if they only get a 5% response rate). The merchant even gets a couple of seconds of “branding into our brains” as we glance at their letter and drop it in the trash, which has some value to the company. Plus, bulk business mail (its proper name) is a major source of revenue that helps your Postal Service continue operating.
And please don't say "going postal" when you hear about workplace violence or school shootings. Workplace violence can happen in any business, movie theater, campus, or—sadly—elementary school anywhere. Far from being a clever put-down, this phrase trivializes such incidents. These are human tragedies, not opportunities to make a joke at the expense of dedicated postal employees.
I finally figured out why the Postal Service is everyone's favorite punching bag—it's because we are everywhere. We are wherever you look—doing our jobs where everyone can see us, processing your mail 24 hours a day in huge processing centers, moving it on trucks, planes, boats, trains, dogsleds, mules, pneumatic tubes—almost anything that moves—delivering your mail almost every day, in the rain, snow, and summer heat. That makes us an easy target.
The Postal Service responded to the anthrax crisis of 2001 (which most people seem to have forgotten about). Starting on September 18, exactly one week after the 9-11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington DC, letters laced with deadly anthrax spores were sent through the mail to five news organizations, and in October letters went to two Senators. Two postal employees at a Washington D.C. mail processing center died after inhaling the deadly spores. Five Americans from Connecticut to Florida died and many more were exposed and became sick. In fact, for weeks the entire nation was terrorized as anthrax-laden letters passed through the postal system. Some of the evidence suggests that the real target of these attacks was the United States Postal service itself. Since everyone with a mailbox was a potential victim, there was no better way to terrorize the entire nation. But even under threat of bioterrorism, these dedicated postal employees continued to manage, process, transport, and deliver your mail! This is a story of Postal Service heroism that needs to be widely told.
In large measure, the story of the U.S. Postal Service is the story of America. So please go easy on your Postal Service and appreciate what they do. Give us an occasional compliment. You would miss us if we stopped delivering.
Statement of “Fair Use” of Postage Stamp Images for National Postal Museum
All stamp images used Courtesy of the National Postal Museum (NPM) under terms of the “Fair Use” provisions of copyright law. The author encourages readers to visit the NPM website at http://postalmuseum.si.edu/. Anyone traveling to Washington DC should make it a priority to visit the Museum in person.
Also please visit the Postal Museum’s sister website Arago: People, Postage & the Post at http://arago.si.edu/. Arago is the official source for viewing thousands of stamps issued by the Postal Service for over 150 years. At Arago, you can also find hundreds “objects that chronicle the development of the U.S. postal system and the vital role mail plays in our daily lives.”