Thursday, January 31, 2013

Postal service is 'what binds us together,' reporter writes after traveling with a letter across the U.S.

The U.S. Postal Service is drowning in debt. Year after year it loses billions mostly because Congress requires it to pre-pay employee pensions, but also because mail is increasingly electronic. The USPS has bounced to and fro with plans to save money, including ending Saturday mail delivery and closing hundreds of rural post offices. Why should we save this seemingly failing enterprise? "It is a miracle of high technology and human touch," Jesse Lichtenstein writes for Esquire. "It's what binds us together as a country." (Esquire photos by Jake Stangel: Carrier Carrie Grabenhorst, top, and postal worker Paula Joneikis)

Lichtenstein writes a colorful story about how a letter mailed from Gold Hill, Ore., makes it to New York City, giving descriptions of each step along the way, from mail carriers to the postmaster general to the troubles the agency currently faces. He begins with rural mail carrier Carrie Grabenhorst, who has developed personal relationships with the people on her route over 18 years of service in the USPS. She knows who's out of town, who's sick and can't make it to the mailbox, and who's going to be waiting on her when she pulls up in her right-side-driving Jeep. Her route is just one of the 227,000 across America, Lichtenstein writes. And all those carriers are delivering mail for less than 50 cents a letter. "It's how the postal service works: The many short-distance deliveries down the block or across the city pay for the longer ones across the country," Lichtenstein writes.

The postal service's mission was always to bind the country together, from the very first moment that the Contionental Congress named Benjamin Franklin our first postmaster general in 1775, Lichtenstein writes. "It was a way of unifying 13 disparate colonies so that the abolitionist in Philadelphia had access to the same information and newspapers as the slaveholder in Augusta, Georgia." Today, the agency has a network of 461 distribution centers, 32,000 post offices and 213,000 vehicles, making it the largest civilian fleet in the world. "The postal service handles almost half of the entire planet's mail," Lichtenstein writes. "It can physically connect any American to any other American in 3.7 million square miles of territory in a few days, often overnight: a vast lattice of veins and arteries and capillaries designed to circulate the American lifeblood of commerce and information and human contact."

But this fleet of "mail touchers" and carriers is facing a real dilemma. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe "all but begged Congress to take action" to save the postal service last November, Lichtenstein reports. The USPS lost $15.9 billion last year and reached its legal debt limit. Mail was down 5 percent from previous years, and wages, benefits and other worker-related costs were at an unsustainable 80 percent of the USPS's $81 billion budget. More than 70 percent of the agency's losses were for "extraordinary budget obligations mandated by Congress," Lichtenstein reports.

"That we're sending less mail is not debatable. Nor is it debatable that the post office as we've known it for the past 40 years, one built for speed and brute force in sorting and distributing an ever-surging flood of paper documents, is outdated in our digital world," Lichtenstein writes. "This isn't a story about whether we could live without the post office. It's about whether we'd want to." (Read more)

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