May 2, 2020; New Yorker
People across the country are buying stamps in bulk and writing thank-you letters to deliverers in support of the US Postal Service, which is being threatened by both the White House and Republicans who say it’s too big to be saved. Delivering around 19.7 million mail pieces each hour per its own estimate, USPS is facing financial trouble due to a decrease in business mail during the COVID-19 pandemic. They are asking Congress for $89 billion to be included in the next stimulus package; otherwise they may have to suspend services by October.
Books have been written and documentaries made about the role our mail service played in the birth and betterment of a nation. The Second Continental Congress created the Postal Service in 1775, designating Benjamin Franklin as its first Postmaster General, to replace the British crown’s “taxation without representation,” which under the Stamp Act had required all printed materials to use paper created in London with an embossed revenue stamp. Coordinated resistance against the Stamp Act would eventually lead to the Revolution.
USPS under Franklin expanded into a vast mail network that helped support the growth of the newspaper industry, encouraged business, and connected its people across 13 colonies. The Postal Service went hand-in-hand with the free flow of ideas and supported its often-painful evolution. It would serve, for example, to distribute abolitionist literature cheaply.
In fact, the first African American Post Office Clerk in 1863 was Bostonian William Cooper Nell, a prominent abolitionist and editor of The Liberator newspaper. Historians continue to relish letters to understand what made this country what it is today, from a Choctaw’s lament forced to relocate during the Trail of Tears, to soldiers’ correspondence during the Civil War, to the women’s suffrage movement.
Fast-forward a century later, and the Post Office continues to serve democracy in innumerable ways. One quick example is Seattle’s Democracy Voucher program, which, translated into 15 different languages, has served to allow US citizens, immigrants with residency status, and underrepresented communities to reshape local elections since 2015 through small donations—four vouchers of $25 each, sent via mail. The system allows for candidates to run for office with public funds and prompts them to campaign face-to-face for people’s votes and donations.
During today’s health crisis, #VirusFreeVoting began trending to demand the support—in funds and policies—of a vote-by-mail option for the 2020 presidential election. “More broadly, the coronavirus has given us no choice. If we want to have an election that is free, fair, secure, and safe, we must have the option for people to vote by mail in November,” writes Matthew Hardwood at the Brennan Center. The critical shortage of polling locations in Wisconsin was a clear sign of what is to come. Voting by mail is actually nothing new: 26 percent of ballots were cast by mail in 2018 and five states—Hawaii, Utah, Oregon, Washington, and Colorado—will already run all-mail elections this year.
What worries the current administration, and Republicans in general, is that the freedom to vote correlates directly with who will be allowed to vote: a younger, more diverse population that has very different ideas of what this country should become. A generation that has a growing interest in democratic socialism, tackling the climate crisis, and are poised to shape future elections. Voting turnout among college students was at 40.3% in 2018, and probably what helped Democrats win the House of Representatives.
Privatizing the US Postal Service has been a coveted wish of Republicans for over 50 years, who have slowly eroded its financial health, by first withdrawing its taxpayer funding in 1970 after a workers’ strike. Its revenue has since depended on low postal rates and finally lost all stability after a Republican-controlled Congress passed the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act in 2006, a law that, according to the New Yorker, “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.”
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The year that mandate passed, the USPS 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.
The Trump administration’s first attempt to put the final nail on the coffin was in 2018, by revealing a plan to shrink and restructure the postal system in the hope of privatizing what it sees as a precious commodity. It’s easy to do the math: 19.7 million mail pieces per hour × [enter jacked-up prices here] would make a private company quite rich and give it precious power over our democracy.
The $10 billion loan Congress approved for the new COVID stimulus package is now under threat. Trump promises to veto it unless he sees sweeping changes.
“The Post Office is a joke,” Trump told reporters on April 24th. He just gave the Postmaster General appointment to Louis DeJoy, a longtime Republican megadonor who hosted a dinner at his home for Trump and the Republican National Committee at $15,000 per ticket. It’s not surprising in a democracy made fragile by ongoing corruption and secret money.
The Postal Service is a direct reflection of how dependent our democracy is to an easy flow of information. The nonprofit sector deeply depends on USPS affordable rates for fundraising, to grow and expand its membership and volunteer programs, to promote ballot measures and inspire entire communities to vote, to provide direct health services such as information for domestic violence survivors, the elderly, the disabled.
A private USPS would not only disproportionally affect rural and isolated communities, but low-income families, people of color, Native communities, and home-ridden folks, as well as the 18 percent of people who still pay their bills by mail, the 20 percent of adults over 40 who order their medication, and the 22 percent who cast absentee ballots by mail.
The livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of hardworking postal workers are also at stake, with a workforce that’s 37 percent women and 37 percent people of color, and that employs 100,000 veterans, of which an estimated 60 percent are disabled.
As the Revolutionary War unfolded, people boycotted and even destroyed British mail posts to deliver their own correspondence between rebel colonies. The privacy of correspondence was seen as a civil right and protected under the Fourth Amendment, which under litigation by the Supreme Court in 1877 prohibits “any authority to invade the secrecy of letters.” In a time when private companies control, monitor, and charge exponentially for most of the flow of information through the internet, USPS still provides one of the most valuable public services for the future of our country.—Sofia Jarrin-Thomas