Many speak as though the death of the United States Postal Service is inevitable; as if the second-largest civilian employer in the United States has been diagnosed with some kind of terminal illness. And maybe it has. Electronic communication increases with each passing day, and private enterprise companies like UPS and FedEx are more than capable of handling parcels. But this belief that, one day, the USPS will cease to exist seems impossible when you consider the impact such a move would have on our nation’s poor.

envelopeWhen you receive official correspondence from a local, state or federal government, by which method does it come? Usually, it comes by mail via the United State Postal Service. A telephone call would require you to have a working telephone, and it leaves no paper trail for records. An email would require you to have both a computer and an Internet connection. These are things that you have to pay for. A letter, however, costs you nothing to receive. All you need is an address and a mailbox.

Electronic communication like email would be the best way to replace a USPS-delivered letter, so let’s imagine for a second that the USPS has shut down and email is the only way we’re able to receive official correspondence. We’d first need to register an email address with our local, state and federal governments, much like we’d register a home address. We’d then need to ensure that every citizen had reasonable access to an Internet-connected PC, and had a private way to view mail. Finally, we’d have to put preventative measures in place to prevent spoofing so that citizens aren’t fooled by fake messages that claim to be sent by the government.

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Would you wait in line to check your email?
Would you wait in line to check your email?

This world sounds like it might be a dream come true for the highly-connected netizens with multiple computers, smartphones and tablets, but it would be a nightmare for the less fortunate. These people would have to make their way to some kind of government office to register an email address, and if they didn’t have one, they’d most likely have to be assigned one by the government. When it comes to checking mail, they’d likely have to head to a local library to check email, and they may very well have to wait in line to do it. Imagine waiting in line just to check your mail, and imagine how you’d feel if you didn’t have any once you got to a terminal. It would be a frustrating way to spend your time.

Of course, the government could simply hand all mail delivery responsibilities over to a private company like UPS or FedEx. Both companies would need to scale up their infrastructures to match the reach and timeliness of the USPS, which they could probably do in time. The problem with such a move is, unless the government structures a deal with a private company to keep delivery days and methods largely the same, UPS or FedEx might decide one day that every day letter delivery and pickup isn’t a healthy part of its business. And we’d be right back where we started — trying to figure out how to replace our traditional mail system.

I’m a big believer in a restructured, reorganized United States Postal Service. But I can’t say I’m a fan of disbanding it completely. Too many people are counting on it. I think we need to take a serious look at how we can ensure the USPS survives and thrives as we move further into the 21st century, but as long as access to Internet-connected computers is spotty for the poor, I don’t think we can afford any other solution.

  • Really good post, you make a lot of great points and bring up some issues that many people probably wouldn’t consider. I know you got me rethinking the whole “killing the USPS” thing. One thing for sure is that it clearly won’t have a straight-forward/simple approach for a solution.

  • I think that if the issue is access should not be an issue. In France they decided to give away Minitel systems to their citizens in the 1980’s so that they could eliminate the phone book. This turned out to be a boom because information services where built on top of this ecosystem. We could do the same thing that we did for set top boxes for assisting the poor when we moved from SD to DTV with vouchers for tablets and minimal cell data service.

    The reports today of HP having a tablet (WiFi Only though) for $169 is amazing. So I can see the parts are getting built so that for most of everything you have said is concerns in your article is going to be solved in the next couple of years.

    • Distributing some kind of tablet device is definitely another option, but with that comes a whole other set of headaches. You don’t have to do a lot to protect a mailbox, but tablets can be dropped, damaged by water, attacked by malware, misplaced, stolen, etc. And it wouldn’t be as simple as going to Home Depot to buy a $30 replacement. Plus, the costs to provide tech support for such devices would be enormous.

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