A Chicago post office in April 2020. Photo credit: Polina MB / Shutterstock.com
Since Benjamin Franklin was appointed the first Postmaster General by the Continental Congress in 1775, the United States Postal Service has survived wars, depressions, natural disasters, and crises of all kinds. But it may not survive Donald Trump.
The Postal Service faces a $13 billion revenue loss this fiscal year alone, as Americans send fewer letters and packages in the COVID-19 crisis. The latest blow falls on top of decades of declining revenue as the public service competes with (and enables) commercial delivery companies that have no public mandate or incentive to affordably serve all 155 million homes, businesses, and Post Office Boxes across the United States, including in sparsely populated rural areas that are most costly to serve.
The USPS’s fiscal squeeze is dramatically worsened by a 2006 law that required the Postal Service to meet a fiscal standard applied to no other federal agency or private company — paying in advance for its retiree health care costs, 75 years into the future. Researchers at the Institute for Policy Studies succinctly describe the impact of the pre-funding mandate: “artificially creating large paper losses to push for privatization and service cuts.”
It is exactly this push for privatizing the Postal Service that motivates the Trump administration. According to the Washington Post, Trump warned Congress that he would veto the $2.2 trillion federal aid package passed in March if the bill included any direct funds to support the Postal Service. As a result, members of Congress abandoned their plan to provide a $13 billion grant to bolster the agency as it continues to ship critical medical supplies, food, and household necessities during the pandemic, instead offering only a $10 billion loan. Now the Postal Service continues to stagger along, providing vital services for a few months longer under a fresh burden of debt.
If the Postal Service is allowed to fail, it will be a tremendous blow to all Americans, who will lose not only the essential services it provides but also the centuries-old American idea of a universal public service that knits the entire country together. As former Demos senior fellow Ian Haney López has documented, the right wing has long used racist dog whistles as a way to undermine support for public institutions, associating government programs and agencies with Black and brown people and appealing to racist notions of incompetence and waste to push an agenda that enriches private companies at the expense of the public good. Attacking the Postal Service, one of the nation’s largest employers of Black workers, is a prime example.
Privatizing the Postal Service or allowing it to collapse would gut the already precarious Black middle class. Since the end of the Civil War, when the vast majority of private companies excluded Black workers from professional jobs, the Postal Service offered one of the few available opportunities for Black Americans to pursue economic advancement, offering civil service protections and a less discriminatory environment that enabled workers to build stable careers and achieve a middle-class standard of living. Strong postal unions, sustained by the militancy of Black workers, fought to ensure fair pay, benefits, and working conditions. Black workers continue to make up more than a quarter of postal service employees today — a proportion more than double their share of the workforce overall. With median pay of $52,000 per year and solid health care and retirement benefits, post office jobs remain a bastion of the Black middle class. The push for privatization threatens this modicum of stability.
Destroying the Postal Service would also undermine democracy. At a time when the threat of coronavirus could make it hazardous to gather in person to cast a ballot, access to vote-by-mail is critical to protecting the rights of all Americans. This is why almost three in four Americans — including 52 percent of Republicans — support giving all eligible voters the option to vote by mail in November. Yet here too, dog whistles about essentially nonexistent voter fraud are being used to silence the voices of Black and brown voters across the country. As my Demos colleagues Chiraag Bains and Laura Williamson point out: “In the 2018 midterm elections, one in four voters — 31 million Americans — cast their ballots by mail. Five states conduct their elections almost entirely by mail and have had virtually no malfeasance.”
Donald Trump may call the Postal Service a joke, but the truth is that a public institution that serves all Americans, enables Black workers to build solid careers and have a voice on the job by coming together in unions, and provides a vehicle for the democratic exercise of power in our increasingly diverse country is a threat to his self-aggrandizing power. The Postal Service is essential. Postal workers — 6,000 of whom are quarantined because of exposure to the coronavirus and 19 of whom have lost their lives — are essential. We cannot allow them to be sabotaged by arcane fiscal mandates or the unreasonable assumption that a vital public service must be self-funding.
Amy Traub is the associate director of policy and research at Demos, a “think-and-do” tank that powers the movement for a just, inclusive, multiracial democracy.
This essay was originally published at the Demos blog on April 30, 2020.