Analysis: The Post Office Struggles to Survive

237 years after it was born, the post office struggles to survive.

By Gabe Pressman
|  Monday, Jul 23, 2012  |  Updated 6:14 PM EDT
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Analysis: The Post Office Struggles to Survive

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Engraved on the majestic pillars of the main post office building on Eighth Avenue in New York are the stirring words: "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."

No, but 237 years after it was born -- July 26, 1775-- the U.S. Postal System is fighting to survive. It's major problems included: huge debt, the Internet and the recurrent battles between the post office bosses and Congress.

The romance of the history of the American post office may not be enough to save it: The Pony Express. The tradition in small towns where people often meet at the post office to trade news and gossip. The airmail service so important in binding soldiers to their loved ones in the nation’s wars -- all these positive aspects of post office history may not be enough.

The New York Times reports that the Postal Service owes a $5.5 billion payment deferred from 2011. Another $5.6 billion payment is due by the end of September. These payments are for future retiree health benefits.

The factors in the postal service’s economic malaise include: more and more people are not paying their bills by mail any more. There ‘s a growing reliance on the Internet. Deteriorating postal service is making it more difficult for magazines and other periodicals to exist because they depend on timely delivery to customers.

Dan K. Thomasson, columnist for Metro West Daily News, says: "The Pony Express may ultimately have been faster than some of the modern services from a U.S. Postal Service struggling against massive debt and the evil Internet."

When many Americans walk into post offices, large and small, these days, they get the feeling that prospects are dismal. I get the impression that many postal workers, as they hear of cutbacks, are losing faith in being able to hold their jobs indefinitely. Thomasson explains: "First class mail was to provide most of the revenue for the public institution, which also is subsidized by the federal government. But with a steady decline in the volume of mail, the service has run $1 billion in the red each month during the first half of the current fiscal year."

The public, says Thomasson, "must decide whether it wants to have a viable U.S. postal system or let it become just a part of romantic history. If it’s the former, is the government willing to assume the total cost?"

There is romance in the history of the post office. Benjamin Franklin became the first postmaster general when the Continental Congress appointed him on July 26, 1775 -- the day the American postal system was established. He modernized the system, introducing such innovations as speeding up mail between Philadelphia and New York in the summer, increasing deliveries from once a week to three times a week. Years later, just after the Civil War, the Pony Express made it possible to deliver letters from Missouri to the West Coast in just 10 days.

Franklin was a man of many talents. In his amazing career, he helped establish a library, a fire company academy, a philosophical society, a militia, a hospital and better street lighting in Philadelphia. His scientific contributions included a study of electricity and lighting, measurement of the Gulf Stream; inventing the lightning rod, bifocals and the Franklin stove.

Too bad he lived in the wrong century. The post office could use him now.  But the problems may be too systemic for one man to solve.

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