Postal system

The radical idea behind our postal system

With Covid-19 confining most Americans to their homes, many of us have become dependent on mail delivery for everything from toiletries to toys for our out-of-school children. Yet as businesses cut ads and solicitations, mail volume has fallen 30% from the same period last year, and the United States Postal Service projects he will lose $ 13 billion this fiscal year and $ 22 billion over the next 18 months. The agency could be financially insolvent in October.

President Donald Trump has insisted there will be no bailout, mistakenly claiming that the USPS could cover its costs by increasing tariffs on Amazon, FedEx, and UPS. He seems happy to let the postal service falter and foster the long-held Conservative dream of privatization.

We have decades of experience in industries like UK telephone companies and rail lines knowing that privatization hardly ever leads to more efficient or more affordable service. But we need to look earlier at the last great postal service reorganization – the British and American postal reforms of the 1840s and 50s – to understand how crucial an accessible and inexpensive national postal system is to a modern society. The postal reform institutionalized and enshrined the principle of equal access to mail, a principle which is now under threat. The Victorian postal transformation also indicates how we can re-imagine the USPS so that it can face its post-pandemic challenges. We can make the postal service an engine of equality.

Before the 19th century postal reform, there was technically a British state postal system, but it was expensive and cumbersome. The recipient paid the postage on delivery, and in the 18th century the typical cost of a single-sheet letter was three or four pence, which is the cost of three or four loaves of bread. The price doubled for a second sheet of paper, tripled for a third and also increased with distance. This distance was misleading, as the courier often had to go first to the London General Post Office before leaving the city for its destination. The GPO monitored mail in a secret office, where letters were opened, read, and closed.

Abuse and transplants have also hampered the system. Just before the reform, about 12.5% ​​of the 82 million mail sent each year were “franked” or mailed free using the privileges of a Member of Parliament. This widespread postal fraud resulted in millions of pounds in lost revenue. Others avoided postage by sending blank letters stating “I’m fine” to recipients who would simply refuse to pay after seeing the outside of the letter.

In colonial America and the early United States, a postal system also existed, but its main purpose was to deliver newspapers – which traveled cheaply – and not personal letters. As in the UK, ordinary people did not receive mail at home; instead, they had to go to a post office to send and collect letters, making the process more public and therefore less accessible to women. Letters would often wait at the post office for days, weeks, or even months for their recipients to claim them.

In the US and UK, systems were known for their slow delivery times and lost or stolen letters; at the end of the 17th century, author Charles Gildon published a series of books entitled The Post-Boy Rob’d from his mail; or, The package has burst, which was based on the common experience of intercepted mail. The elite turned to private couriers, creating a two-tier system.

Sending letters was the only form of long distance communication at the time. As urbanization accelerated in the 17th and 18th centuries and the post office remained unreliable, people began to lose touch with their loved ones.

In the 1830s, a postal official named Rowland Hill began to advocate a series of reforms. The most famous and important of these were the introduction of prepaid postage and the reduction in the cost of a standard letter to a penny. Hill’s reforms were implemented in 1839-1840 and the world’s first postage stamp, the Penny Black, featuring an engraving of 21-year-old Queen Victoria, which appeared in 1840.

Supposedly, Hill came up with the idea for postal reform after seeing a young woman turn down a letter from her fiance because she couldn’t afford the postage. Supporters popularized his plan with sensational stories of siblings separated for decades and young women losing their virtue because family members could not pay to receive their letters asking for help. In its brochure Postal reform; Its importance and practicality, Hill asked the British to imagine what a world of universal and accessible mail would look like. He dwelled on the benefits for the poor and the working classes, who would no longer have to choose between meeting daily needs and staying in touch with friends and relatives.

After the reforms, people completely changed the way they use mail. The first self-adhesive envelopes appeared, removing the need for accessories like stamps and sealing wax. Mailboxes also appeared – usually attributed to novelist and postal official Anthony Trollope – allowing people to send letters without going to the post office. And residential addresses as we know them, with street number and name, have become more systematic. (Previously, instructions such as “against the flag and the lamb” were common, resulting in even more lost mail.) All of these changes have made mail both more accessible and more private, allowing ordinary people to send and easily receive letters.

In the first year after postal reform, mail volume doubled, and it doubled again at the end of the decade, more than offsetting the drop in tariffs. Hill was right that there was a pent-up demand for a modern and convenient postal service.

The series of American reforms in the 1840s and 50s that standardized and reduced postage costs transformed what had been a newspaper and business letter delivery system, which worked best in urban areas, into a network unique to the nationwide. A letter anywhere in the country costs the same as anywhere else, creating a bureaucracy that has crumbled across the distances across the expanding nation. Even before the arrival in 1860 of the famous Pony Express (a private and ephemeral experience), postal reform made interaction with the post a daily event. Between 1840 and 1860, the annual volume of letters more than quintupled, from 27 million to 161 million.

After the reform, people came to regard a reliable postal system as a key aspect of modern life. The letter writers were all equal: if you could afford a stamp, your mail was as valuable as anyone else’s. Now, without such a national system, rural communities are likely to lose postal services, just as they are slow to acquire broadband access. The image of postal workers across the country deterred by “no snow, no rain, no heat, no nighttime darkness” – no global pandemic – sums up the assumption that everyone should have equal access to mail.

In fact, as we defend the USPS in the face of Covid-19 and Trump’s opposition, we have an opportunity not only to maintain the status quo, but to envision a new set of postal reforms that would expand that principle and would secure the agency’s finances in the future. Clearly, Congress must end the requirement, passed by a lame Republican Congress in 2006, that the USPS pre-fund the pensions of its retirees until 2056, a stipulation imposed on no other federal agency or private company. The demand deliberately undermined the service so that Republicans could later claim the USPS was insolvent, exactly the situation it is in now. Removing this burden would avoid measures such as ending most deliveries on Saturdays, as the agency threatened to do in 2013.

More dramatically, the postal bank could provide bank accounts and small loans to underserved communities, a service already available in 139 other countries. Postal banking would help end the predatory payday lending industry and serve as a check on the big banks by providing an alternative to business practices such as overdraft fees and pressure to open new accounts. Postal banking services could intervene in minority and low-income communities, which are likely to lack disproportionate access to banks and instead use expensive check-cashing facilities. The service would be particularly useful during a financial crisis like the current one, as it would allow the government to simply deposit funds into Americans’ accounts rather than delaying payments for weeks or months.

It is not enough to maintain the USPS. To continue the legacy of postal reform, we must extend its principles of equality and accessibility. The pandemic only underscores how much we depend on service. A new era of reform would ensure we don’t revert to an expensive, multi-tiered mail system that results in millions of Americans losing access to a vital form of connectivity.