Rupert Cornwell: The last post looms for the US mail service

Out of America: Founded before the Declaration of Independence, it's facing an uncertain future thanks to the recession and the rise of the internet

Share
Related Topics

When did you last get an old fashioned letter? Not one of those tiresome newsletters-plus-family photo that increasingly pass for Christmas cards here (and which, maddeningly, won't even stand up on the mantelpiece) but a real letter, from a friend, relative or lover, with a stamp, a postmark and – unlike email – with privacy guaranteed?

The answer, probably, is not for a while. And if so, you will start to understand the desperate plight of the United States Postal Service, the largest mail system on earth, whose origin predates even the Declaration of Independence. Today, the USPS has 574,000 full-time workers, making it the country's second largest civilian employer after Walmart.

Unlike the vastly profitable retail chain, however, its business has been steadily contracting, by 20 per cent between 2006 and 2010. And unlike Walmart, it loses money by the truckload: $8.5bn (£5.5bn) a year, $23m every day. The main culprit, needless to say, is the internet. Most painful has been the decline of first-class mail, the most lucrative part of its operations, but now largely superseded by email. The lost habit of letter writing is only part of the problem; once you paid utility bills with a cheque in a stamped envelope, another nice little earner for the postal service. Today ever more people do so online, for nothing.

Thus are the mighty fallen. The first US Postmaster General, appointed by the Second Continental Congress in 1775, was Benjamin Franklin, statesman, founding father and leading figure in the American Enlightenment, whose face adorns the $100 bill. Last autumn Patrick Donahoe, the 73rd person to hold the job and who began his career as a postal clerk in Pittsburgh, went before Congress to warn that without sweeping reform, the postal service faced default and might have to shut its doors within months.

The financial woes of the USPS do not stem solely from the explosion of the internet. Under existing law, and alone of government agencies, it must contribute out of its revenues some $5.5bn annually into a trust fund for future employee pensions, 75 years in advance. Late last year, Congress did allow that payment to be suspended. Nonetheless Mr Donahoe will have to take immediate and painful action of his own.

Over the last four years alone, the service has shed 110,000 jobs, saving $12bn. It no longer guarantees next-day delivery for first-class mail and is considering dispensing with Saturday deliveries entirely. There will be further large cuts in personnel, and for those who remain, pensions and other benefits will surely be reduced. Most controversial of all – and of which more in a moment – it may be forced to close almost 3,700 post offices across the country.

The United States Postal Service of course isn't the first, and won't be the last, grand old American institution to be brought low by our electronic age. Only last week, for instance, it emerged that Kodak, one of the titanic brands of 20th-century US business, its name once shorthand for the photographic industry, is on the brink of bankruptcy. Just as the internet has ravaged snail mail, so digital cameras have all but killed off the Eastman Kodak Co. In this case the company has only itself to blame – having, it claims, invented the digital camera in 1975 but then, in a calamitous failure of foresight and imagination, holding off from the new product in order to protect the traditional film market which it then dominated.

But Kodak's place in society's functioning has quickly been filled by others – by digital camera makers, mobile phones and the rest. Such is capitalism, a cycle of destruction but also creation. Whether America's postal service could be so easily replaced is quite another matter.

For one thing, it's a bargain. Despite the vast distances involved, a first-class stamp here costs only 44 cents (28p), compared to the 46p charged by the Royal Mail.

More important still, the mail here is not merely a postal service. It's a many-layered public service as well, and this brings me to the 3,700 post offices that may be shut. The bulk of these are in rural areas, many of them remote, with dwindling, ageing populations. Inevitably, they fail to generate the $27,500 in annual revenue now deemed the minimum to be viable.

But that is to ignore deeper truths. The local post office is not just a vital link with the outside world, for instance as a means by which people in rural areas receive prescription drugs. For tiny communities, it is also a social hub, a focal point without which those communities may die.

A few years ago I visited Fortuna in the north-west of North Dakota, a few miles from the Canadian border. In that strange US parlance, Fortuna is described as a "city", but its population, once 200-odd, had by then shrunk to 21, clustered in a couple of blocks in the midst of the vast North American prairie. But the place had a post office. Therefore it existed. Glancing down the list of North Dakota post offices facing the axe, I saw Fortuna's name and trembled for its survival.

Perhaps the alarm is exaggerated. Congressional Republicans fulminate against the federal deficit, but they do not want to be held responsible for anything that harms God-fearing rural America, least of all in an election year. Still, one wonders. Inscribed on the facade of New York's majestic colonnaded central Post Office are the rousing words that constitute the unofficial motto of the US Postal Service: "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds." For how much longer?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an excellent, large partially ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Ashdown Group: Lead Web Developer (ASP.NET, C#) - City of London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Lead Web Develo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Science versus religion in the three-parent baby debate

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Kylie has helped to boost viewing figures for the talent show  

When an Aussie calls you a ‘bastard’, you know you’ve arrived

Howard Jacobson
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee