By: Atmanah Parab
The spread of the Coronavirus has forced a reevaluation of society at large for many. Among the myriad of questions being asked, one that stands out is: what is an essential service? What is a service so valuable that its provision trumps protection of health, safety and the bottom line? With an election, medicine deliveries and affordable shipping on the line, the USPS emerges as an example. Due to the fact that it is a service of massive value to Americans, its dissolution could be another nail in the coffin of American democracy.
In the era of online communication, physical mail can feel antiquated and maybe even unneeded but the reality is that physical mail and services like the United States Postal Service are of vital importance to the function of the nation. However, the future of the USPS is highly uncertain between the unprecedented attack of COVID-19, restrictive legislation that weakens its functionality and the general neglect and dismissal from the Trump Administration. Not everything can be run as a business where the primary standard for value is profit and avoiding debt, and the USPS is one of the only egalitarian services offered by the United States government.
As an article from The Economist puts it, the USPS is suffering “one acute and two chronic” ailments. The “acute” one being the exposure of USPS employees to Coronavirus resulting in tens of thousands of quarantined workers and in some cases, death. In addition to this, the threat of COVID-19 and the limitations placed upon the normal operations of businesses have resulted in less mail, exacerbating the trend of consistent financial losses by the USPS.
The “chronic” issues with the USPS are structural and widespread patterns in function, that have only been worsening over time. First, the decline of first-class mail –“the most popular and economical way to send standard postcards, letters, large envelopes, and small packages”–is one of the most obvious issues for the USPS. With the advent of the internet, it is less efficient and more costly to communicate through mail. Second, the USPS has struggled as its services are gradually outpaced by technology but the agency is one of the most favored parts of the United States government. Despite being clearly valued by Americans, legislation and financial regulation has served to punish the USPS for its struggle to stay afloat and limit its function even further. An example of a bill passed in 2006 that requires the agency to provide for retiree healthcare up to decades in advance, this places a great deal of financial stress on the agency.
There has been a historic movement to defund or privatize the USPS and orient its structure towards generating a profit rather than providing service the way it does. However, if the USPS and its status has been an issue warranting concern for decades, why is its current status so precarious? A recent and alarming continuation in this vein are the rhetoric espoused and actions taken by the Trump Administration in regards to the USPS. In the past month or so, Trump has gone from dismissing the USPS as “a joke” to blatantly admitting that the defunding of the USPS will have a derailing effect on the 2020 election to the random removal of mail processing machines in key states. When economic supplement funds were allocated to businesses and government entities alike to soften the blow of COVID-19 through the CARES Act, the proposed infusion into the USPS was cut down and debt relief was denied. In addition to this, the newly appointed Postmaster General has implemented several changes that have contributed to further degradation of services, “Internal Postal Service documents obtained by The Washington Post show that postal employees have been barred from working overtime hours and instructed to leave mail behind if it is processed late.”
However, the point at which these delays become especially terrifying and apparent is when the 2020 election is concerned. Due to COVID-19 the safest way to cast a ballot (and hopefully the most popular way) is to mail it in. However, if the USPS is being purposefully hindered to the point of delay during regular volume mail traffic, the election could be a set up for disaster. It is also worth noting that due to the hyper-politicized nature of discourse about the coronavirus that people more likely to use absentee ballots as opposed to showing up to physically vote lean towards certain party identifications and demographics. These specific inclinations follow existing trends of wherein certain populations (conservative, older, rural etc.) are more likely to vote and not have their votes suppressed through the disproportionality of the electoral system, voter ID laws and systematic disenfranchisement. What’s worse is that there is an existing precedent of mail-in-ballots being arbitrarily discounted. That being said, to counter this effect and ensure democratic expression, voters who wish to vote by mail-in-ballot must be conscious of delivery times and send their ballots off far in advance. Other advice floating around the internet advises the determined voter to drop off their mail-in-ballots in person and to go as far as to get in contact with election supervisors to minimize the effects of Trump’s attacks on the USPS.
Beyond the 2020 election, the USPS is integral to the function of this nation. Certain rural communities and regions are only brought mail, medicine and deliveries due to the USPS’s extensive service network. The absence of this agency or weakening to the point where more and more offices are forced to shut down will actively end chains of communication and medical delivery in places like Alaska. Even private alternatives such as UPS and FEDEX are significantly more expensive and often hand off their “hard to deliver” items off to the USPS as a national connector. In the absence of the USPS small businesses will likely suffer most with the lack of affordable delivery services. It is truly unfortunate but, the USPS, one of the largest forces that works to equalize a country that seems to be fracturing at the seams is now under attack.