Early this year, when a small post office in Portland’s West End was targeted for closure by the U.S. Postal Service, there was an immediate and sustained outcry from resident post office box holders and customers that resulted in it being spared the hatchet.

In large numbers, the community fought for a branch office that is situated in the heart of Portland’s West End neighborhood and its arts district, where, for years, residents have shopped, dined and conducted their daily business.

Many elderly residents without cars or bank accounts find the branch a convenient place to pick up their government checks and make money orders to pay their bills.

The problems this vital service faces stem from declining mail volume and past congressional initiatives that transformed the Postal Service from a taxpayer-supported institution into a so-called revenue-neutral agency that is expected to pay for itself, according to John Nichols, Washington correspondent for The Nation.

The Postal Service reported a $3.8 billion loss in 2009 and has been crippled by poor political and managerial choices, as well as accounting errors that have left it with unsustainable pension liabilities.

“The Postal Service’s economic turbulence has fostered the fantasy that it is no longer necessary in an age when ‘warp-speed Internet’ is constantly juxtaposed against ‘snail mail,’ ” Nichols writes.

Economist Dean Baker attributes the service’s shortfall to a 2006 congressional requirement that the Postal Service pre-fund 80 percent (it is at almost 50 percent to date) of retiree health care benefits.

Yet, according to Nichols, “The USPS is anything but an anachronism on a slow march to oblivion. It is a national treasure that provides an immense and irreplaceable social service. … We must recognize that the Postal Service can and must remain public if we are to maintain the essential infrastructures of democracy.”
While acknowledging the fact that the postal service must change in scope and character in order to survive, supporters such as Nichols propose a wide range of ways that they might re-imagine themselves, such as by providing a broader range of information, vote-by-mail systems, community services and even banking options. Indeed, from 1910 to 1967, the agency maintained a postal banking system that allowed citizens to open small savings accounts at local post offices.

Many of us are unaware that 35 percent of all Americans and 50 percent of rural residents in this country still have no broadband Internet access in their home. Yet, the Postal Service has always been universal. Its almost 600,000 employees travel more than 4 million miles to deliver more than a half-billion pieces of mail each day.

The Postal Service takes step to ensure that no citizen or community is neglected, including contracting commercial planes to move parcels across the country in a matter of hours. It has a network of more than 35,000 retail outlets, among the largest in the world. I’m willing to bet a sheet of 44-cent stamps that companies like FedEx and UPS wouldn’t be willing to extend their services that far.

“The service has historically been and remains one of the surest sources of employment for African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Latinos, women and the poor,” Nichols writes. “In short, the USPS forms a vital network of service, connection and community that provides the steadiest link between Americans and their government.”

The problem is that the Postal Service isn’t profitable, largely because past legislative reforms have forced it to run like a business. But, in this case, the “public good” is far more important than any bottom line. Downsizing the Postal Service – eliminating six-day delivery, closing thousands of local post offices nationwide and cutting an estimated 26,000 full-time and 13,000 part-time jobs through attrition and layoffs – could eventually put it out of business entirely.

Among the innovative strategies for re-inventing our postal system being bandied about relate to postal ballots, an integral part of our democratic process. Perhaps the nation’s post offices could provide information, distribute and collect voting materials and issue inexpensive residency and address identifications for voting purposes, as Nichols suggests.

So far, President Obama has asserted that he thinks the “privatization” of our postal system is a bad idea, because it leads to companies buying into parts of the government with only profit for motives.

He also doesn’t appear to like the idea of cutting mail delivery down to five days, but it remains to be seen how he fares with more drastic proposals, such as increasing stamp prices and raising weekly magazine and newspaper rates, that could further alienate customers.

Substantially reducing the rates charged to the weekly newspapers and journals of opinion that are part of civic discourse could potentially enhance the furtherance of print media in conjunction with online publishing that is also not yet very profitable.

The Postal Service has the world’s third-largest computing infrastructure, including more than 5,000 remote locations that receive Internet service via satellite. Surely, this impressive capacity could be re-envisioned in productive way.

Americans will always need to communicate with one another via paper and printed materials and will need to ship parcels even when they are ordered on the Internet.

Our postal system should stay true to its original mission and remain a public utility, and our government should work toward maintaining it as a job creator by maximizing its substantial potential.

Leigh Donaldson is a Portland writer and a New York Times Fellow at the International Longevity Center USA. He can be contacted at:

leighd@lycos.com