The U.S. Postal Service was in what critics called a “death spiral” well before the anthrax onslaught, but that doesn't mean this crucial national service should be abandoned in the current chaos.
First-class mail volume has dropped since the anthrax scare, leading some analysts to predict that e-mail and other forms of communication, plus competition from private carriers, will drive the quasi-governmental postal corporation further into fiscal difficulty and, perhaps, even out of business.
But the postal service has been in financial trouble before and has always survived because it is a deeply engrained and indispensable part of American life. Simply put, the mail is something we can't do without, anthrax notwithstanding.
The postal service lost $199 million last year. Its deficit was projected at $1.65 billion for 2001, supposedly dropping off to $1.35 billion in 2002, but that was before the catastrophic events of Sept. 11. Just replacing the postal facility destroyed in the World Trade Center plus paying for added security and the burden of anthrax inspections are estimated to cost at least $63 million.
Postal service revenue was reported down $500 million in the three weeks before Sept. 11 due to a variety of factors, including the declining economy, increased use of e-mail and online payment of bills, and the relentless push from United Parcel Service, Federal Express, and other delivery services. Over the past three years, the volume of personal mail has dropped 6.2 percent, according to a postal service economist. There were two postal rate increases last year, and the price of stamps is due to go up by three cents next year.
These are among the reasons Postmaster General John Potter is asking Congress for a bailout, so far of an undetermined amount. While we do not advocate bailouts for every business hurt by terrorism - the $15 billion gift to the airlines was a huge mistake - the postal service is an essential service that must be maintained. The mail must go through.
E-mail, while highly touted as a replacement for “snail mail,” simply isn't available everywhere and to everyone. One study showed that fewer than 45 percent of U.S. households had Internet access last year. While that's a big jump from 25 percent two years earlier, it still is not a universal mode of communication. The postal service, in contrast, will deliver a letter to any street or post office box address in the country.
Beyond the issue of availability, however, electronic delivery of the written word doesn't cut it for many Americans. Not everyone is comfortable with reading newspapers and magazines from a computer screen. Many people still crave the tactile and visual experience of words on paper.
The U.S. Postal Service is part of the cultural glue that holds this country together. Terrorism should not be allowed to strip away this traditional manifestation of our national community.