US Postal Service: a cause of concern
I may soon lose something I have taken for granted all my life: receiving letters by post. Unless America's leaders undertake emergency surgery of the United States Postal Service, this country could soon be incredibly pushed back in time and its post offices could become extinct.
This could happen as early as October next year. The postal service has money only till the end of the current financial year which ends on September 30, 2012.
"Theoretically we are bankrupt," says the US postmaster-general, Patrick Donahoe. "We could be in trouble by next August if something isn't done legislatively."
That is a huge understatement. The service Donahoe heads is already in trouble, deep trouble. More than half a million Americans earn their livelihood from working for post offices. The number is precisely 557,000 career employees, according to Donahoe.
Closure of the United States Postal Service or even a cut to bare bones would have a devastating effect on American society. In terms of fresh job losses for this country that is already reeling from high unemployment, it would be comparable to the financial meltdown of three years ago.
The 2008 financial crisis first hit America's richest one per cent who are now the target of the "Occupy" protests that dot most towns in this country. As the US was heading into the last presidential election, the crisis crippled banks, insurance firms, automobile companies, mortgage businesses and brokerages but not ordinary Americans, whom the "occupiers" like to describe as the "99 per cent."
It was the spin-off from that meltdown which eventually exposed Americans to massive joblessness. But the companies that went bankrupt were themselves bailed out for the most part. They were too big to fail, was the argument.
There appears to be no such urgency, however, to saving America's postal network. The postmaster-general says the work of a mail delivery man or a postal clerk is a "blue-collar job". That may account for the lack of any great concern here that the postal service has been steadily bleeding since 2000.
A quarter million postal workers have already been retrenched since the dawn of the new millennium. That is a huge number for a society which is no longer significantly growing economically and helplessly watches its jobs being shipped overseas.
America's "first class" postal stamps, mostly used for domestic mail, no longer show their value on them. Instead, they carry the legend "Forever". That came about because the postal service has been raising the rates for mail faster than it could sell the stamps showing the revised rates.
First, it tried to cope by printing small denomination stamps, equal in value to the difference in rates, to be affixed on letters along with the old stamps. But that further pushed up costs because new stamps had to be printed to make up the difference in rates.
So now, these stamps are for ever. A first class stamp bought four years ago for a lower price can be used 10 years from now even if the rate for mail has doubled in the meantime. Assuming, of course, that the US Postal Service survives into the next decade.
Postal rates in America have risen almost every year for close to a decade to keep up with rising costs. But it was counter-productive because the recurring rate increases only drove customers away from using postal services.
I stopped using regular post five or six years ago for services can be done through the Internet, such as paying monthly bills for utilities. Not because the Internet offered an easier option, as Donahoe would have everyone believe, but only because I got tired of the way postal rates were being revised annually.
I know many elderly Americans, technologically challenged, who seek the assistance of their children or grandchildren to access the Internet for services that were once met by the postal network. They would have continued to rely on conventional snail mail if it were not for frequent rate rises.
That too for services which left a lot to be desired. For a country as advanced as the US, its postal system would instantly collapse if it faced anything like the daunting challenges of its counterpart in India. Nor, for that matter, can the US Postal Service hold a candle to the Royal Mail, which is Britain's legacy to pre-Internet communication.
Even if the US Postal Service manages to avoid closure next year, its current state of health will leave lasting scars on American society. Take for instance a facility in Everett in Washington state, which processes one million outgoing letters and parcels daily and is slated for closure as part of a cost-cutting drive that has been under way to save the postal service.
It employs 300 people who thought they had a job for the rest of their working lives in a service that most countries consider to be an inalienable need of society. Little communities all over the US, like the one in Everett, are in shock.
For some of them, the loss of a postal facility could translate into the loss of their town itself. In some towns where the primary employer is a large mail sorting office, its closure would force people to move elsewhere and ancillary businesses which survived on the postal workers would also have to down their shutters.
The bankruptcy of the US Postal Service is not just an issue of profitably managing a business or one that is causing concern merely because more than half a million jobs are involved. In many remote communities across America, the local post office can be the centre of their social life.
A popular radio programme recently broadcast from Fort Rock, Oregon, featured the wives of local farmers who said the post office was a daily meeting place for them whenever the mail came in, a way to get some relief from the tedium of rural life.
The social life of this community revolves around its post office, a general store, a family-run restaurant and, of course, its local tavern. The closure of the local post office would be a big blow to places like this.
The president of the Fort Rock Valley Historical Society told the programme that Fort Rock got its post office on March 9, 1908, a big day that the community still observes. "That put us on the map."
Newspapers across America have recently featured towns where the people would have to drive 30 or 40 miles to mail a parcel or buy stamps once their local post office is closed in drastic economy measures to save the postal service.
At the eleventh hour on Friday, the postal service got a very limited reprieve from the US Congress, which allowed it to defer pre-funding $5.5 billion to ensure that its retirees continue to get health benefits. But this small step is like administering a painkiller to a cancer patient. Already, the postal service has lost about $20 billion in the four years preceding 2010. Ironically, the agency receives no taxpayer money to fund its operations and is run like a commercial enterprise.
In the US Congress, taking note of the death spiral of America's mail system, lawmakers have proposed legislation to bring relief, but the bills are stuck in the political gridlock in Washington. The House of Representatives and the Senate have different views on reforming the postal service.
One cause for hope is that a provision in the American constitution deals with the right of the US Congress "to establish post offices" and in recent years, courts here have linked this provision to the First Amendment right of Americans to free speech.
Source: Yahoo News