One of the most confounding pieces of news recently was not the Olympic medalist charged with murder, the giant meteor crashing in Russia or the “Port-a-Potty on water,” as a disabled Carnival cruise ship was described by one sorry vacationer. It was that some people are cheering a plan to end Saturday mail delivery.
Cheering? We should be mourning.
For many of us, getting mail is one of the great pleasures of Saturdays. If you work outside the home, then on most days, you’re ripping the mail open and scanning it perfunctorily on the fly. But on Saturdays, you can savor it.
It might be the letter from India, the postcard from Spain, the package from an aunt in Florida. It might be the birthday card, the thank-you note, the invitation to dinner. For older people or others who lack online access, what we now call “snail” mail might be the only correspondence, bringing comfort and contact, including with the mail carrier.
Email is convenient, but mail sent through the post office is tactile. The note from the granddaughter in New York, the wedding or graduation announcement, the condolence card, all were touched, sealed and addressed by those whose handwriting they bear, and carried by people, sometimes from great distances.
If it arrives early enough Saturday, there is time to get that check that was in the mail — the rebate, the rent, the gift — into the bank. You might actually get to fully read those magazines or newspapers. The Netflix movie might be timed for Saturday pizza and movie night.
Some of the people cheering the end of Saturday mail complain it brings too much junk. Yes, there are unwelcome solicitations, bills, violation and renewal notices. But at least on weekends you have more time to deal with them.
Without mail delivery, Saturdays would be flatter, duller and less productive. But if sentiment were the only reason to continue it, that wouldn’t be much of an argument. There are practical reasons, too.
In an era of globalization, amid efforts to boost international trade and an unprecedented outsourcing of jobs, scaling back any mail delivery would be counterproductive. Last I checked, some countries had mail deliveries twice a day. America even used to have Sunday mail delivery around Christmastime.
Cutting delivery back would drive customers to other avenues, forcing further cuts and losses to the U.S. Postal Service. It would open the door for private companies to grab more market share, and costs to spike.
Yes, the Postal Service reportedly lost nearly $16 billion in the last fiscal year. But that doesn’t mean there is no longer a need for its services. The Nation magazine calls the budget problem “a manufactured crisis,” thanks to a 2006 law introduced at the behest of the George W. Bush administration that requires the Postal Service to fund retiree health benefits 75 years in advance, at a cost of $5.5 billion per year.
Since that year, the Postal Service says it has cut its 193,000 jobs, consolidated more than 200 mail-processing centers and reduced hours at 13,000 post offices. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe has asked Congress to give the Postal Service permission to run its own health plan for employees and retirees and modify the prefunding mandate. Congress should grant that. But Donahue’s claim that the Postal Service has the authority to end Saturday delivery without congressional approval is disputed by members of Congress from both parties, and should be fought.
Labor leaders say ending Saturday delivery would be felt most in rural areas and inner cities, where post offices are already targeted for closing, and would increase mail carriers’ workloads the rest of the week. The Postal Service could instead save money, writes New York University professor Steve Hutkins, by reducing its $12 billion worth of outsourcing to private companies and doing some of the work handled by call centers, mail transportation services, retail contract stations and maintenance in-house. Others argue postal services should be centralized in retail establishments such as grocery stores to save on running post offices.
Many approaches should be considered, but with the end goal of maintaining the Postal Service’s viability and not making it superfluous. Like water or electricity, mail delivery is an essential public service that nothing can replace.
Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register.