The Post Office

I stopped by the Clear Lake, Washington, Post Office yesterday. I had some forms that needed to be returned to the Pension Boards as part of our application to begin receiving our pension benefits. Clear Lake is not one of Washington’s big cities. It isn’t even a big town. The post office has a small entryway and a tiny customer service area. Due to coronavirus, only one customer is allowed in the service area at a time. It was no problem for me, I was the only customer present in the building at the time. Still, the building had everything I needed and I was soon on my way secure in the knowledge that my letter will be delivered in New York City on Monday morning.

The Post Office has a long tradition of providing service to all Americans, regardless of their address. My cousin lived five miles from the nearest town, which was a very small rural community in Montana. His house was four miles from the nearest neighbor. He got his mail delivered every day. That is the way the Post Office works. It delivers mail in dense urban areas and in widely spaced rural areas. You can mail a letter from any Post Office to any address in the country and know it will be delivered.

I grew up in a town where we didn’t have in-town delivery. Those who lived in town rented boxes at the Post Office and our mail was delivered to the boxes. Those who did not have a box could call for their mail at the window. We went to the Post Office six days a week to pick up our mail. It was the same arrangement for us for the seven years that we lived in a small town in North Dakota. We enjoyed the routine of going to the Post Office to pick up our mail. It was an opportunity to get out for a walk and an opportunity to meet our neighbors.

For most of my life, however, the Post Office has delivered the mail to my house, or to a box that is very near to my house. We have learned to take the service for granted.

Over the years, we’ve watched the price of stamps go up as other costs in the community have gone up. I guess I qualify as an old timer because I can remember when postage was 3 cents and a post card went for 2 cents. Even at the current rates, however, it is amazing what the Post Office can accomplish. The important letter I mailed yesterday can be tracked on its journey across the United States. We can go to a web site and check to see whether or not it was delivered on time. While we are traveling on this trip, the Post Office is holding our mail. I get an email every day with scans of the outside of the envelopes that are being held. I know exactly what will be awaiting me upon my return from this trip.

In recent years the Post Office has been losing money. The cost of providing the services has exceeded the revenue from stamps and delivery fees. The losses have become the object of plenty of politics, with the President arguing that they need to charge businesses more for its services. He has singled out a specific business as his culprit and has threatened the Post Office in an attempt to get it to raise the rates on that business. The problem is that the Post Office is making a profit on package delivery. Its financial woes don’t stem from package delivery rates. The months of measures taken to prevent the spread of Covid-19 have been a boon to the Post Office. Revenues have soared as people have arranged for more home delivery of items that they used to purchase in person. Delivering packages works for the Post Office and may prove to be an important part of its long term financial picture.

We need the services provided by the Post Office. Our society is dependent upon safe, affordable and accurate delivery of mail. Even if the service needs to be subsidized by tax payers, it is essential to the way we do business. The Internet may have decreased the number of letters and cards that people send, but it has not eliminated the need for the Post Office.

When I was ten years old, the Post Office began encouraging people to use numeric codes called Zone Improvement Plan Codes or ZIP Codes. There was quite a bit of initial resistance to the practice in the beginning. I remember people refusing to use the codes. My father used to joke that the Post Office took a look at their options. On the one hand they could teach their employees geography. On the other hand they could teach the entire nation a system of number codes. They decided that teaching the entire nation number codes would be easier. The real reason for the codes was that the numbers provided for an increase in automation in the process of sorting the mail. These days we take the codes and the automatic sorting of mail for granted. Most of us have not only adopted the five digit ZIP codes, but also have learned to use the additional four digits that allow for even faster sorting of the mail.

These days most of the mail travels by air. Gone are the days when Post Office employees rode the trains, sorting the mail as they traveled. We used to go down to the train station to watch the system whereby bags of mail were picked up and others left without the need for the train to stop its motion. That same town now sends and receives mail by truck every day. There have been a lot of changes, but the service that now features automation and Internet tracking still delivers live chicks every spring.

People who love to complain about the Post Office still use its services. It is an amazing institution and a foundational part of our society. Despite all of the politics, the Post Office is here to stay. I’m glad it is that way.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!