EDITORIAL: Fund Postal Service now

IS THE UNITED STATES POSTAL SERVICE a joke? Not if you depend on it for delivery of medicines or if you expect online purchases delivered to your doorstep. But last week the President of the United States called it “a joke.”

Maybe the president’s remark April 24 was sarcastic. He praised postal workers but said he wouldn’t support Covid-19 federal aid to the Postal Service until that agency raises the price to deliver e-commerce packages. He said the rates the Postal Service charges to deliver e-commerce packages should be four times higher than they are now, and he singled out Amazon as part of the problem. But charging that much more would increase the chances Amazon and other shippers will do their own deliveries, which would deprive the Postal Service of much-needed revenue. Is there a punchline here?

Columbia County has 32 post offices. Before we suspended distribution of The Columbia Paper print edition at the end of March, we had readers in every one of those 32 ZIP Codes and we delivered papers directly to all but two of those post offices. At some point the pandemic will be less of a threat and we can resume publishing our print edition. But we can’t return without the Postal Service to deliver each issue to subscribers. That’s why the president’s “joke” becomes a local story.

Since his joke comment the president reportedly tweeted reassurances that he would not let the Postal Service “fail.” Sadly, the financial remedy the president proposes would remove the only bright spot in the finances of the Postal Service. But now there’s a new plan to ease Postal Service funding woes. For context, here are some facts:

• Since 1970 the USPS has been a company run by the president and Congress. It does not receive federal funds to support the delivery of mail.

• Unlike agencies of the federal government, the USPS must “pre-fund” its pension and health care costs. Those costs, along with less money from first-class mail, has left the Postal Service with multi-billion-dollar debts.

• The Postal Service makes more money than it spends on handling e-commerce packages.

• Amazon, the e-commerce giant, is owned by Jeff Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post. The president dislikes the Post, intensely.

In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, New York’s junior senator, Kirsten Gillibrand (D) called for Congress to fund the Postal Service in ways that would make voting more accessible, restore a legacy service benefiting economically struggling people throughout the nation, and protect the 600,000 postal employees and the critical services they provide from Covid-19.

Her plan is to relieve the Postal Service of the requirement to fund pension and healthcare obligations “75 years in advance,” as Sen. Gillibrand described it. Along with that, Congress must also insist on Covid-19 relief funds to protect all front-line workers, including postal workers.

Her most intriguing idea is to call for the return of a historic service known as postal banking. It’s just what it sounds like: post offices can also act as small branches of a non-profit postal bank. The bank would provide inexpensive checking as well as ATM, savings accounts and low-interest loans, often becoming the only banking option in low-income communities other than predatory lenders.

Can’t be done? But it was introduced at the beginning of the 20th century and it grew rapidly during the Depression. Why don’t we have it now? Because after World War II, this country became so wealthy (and private banking so profitable) that postal banking was ended. There are hard times coming, let’s revive this good idea now rather than wonder later why we didn’t do it sooner.

The money from this type of banking is projected to produce $9 billion in revenue for the Postal Service, helping to eliminate Postal Service debt and boosting the economy.

Last week the New York State Board of Elections met electronically and canceled the state’s presidential primary. The board also decided to mail applications for absentee ballots to every eligible primary voter. Those who return the application by mail will receive an absentee ballot. They won’t have to stand in line at the proper social distance waiting to vote. Using the mail could increase turnout and save lives, not put them at risk. The same will hold true on a bigger scale for the November general election.

The Postal Service is a vital part of our social, commercial and political life. It needs funding now. Threatening the Postal Service threatens all of us. Funny the president doesn’t get that.

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