The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the way American society values essential services and workers. Americans are developing a stronger appreciation for grocery stores, food delivery apps, and frontline healthcare facilities. The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) also ranks high on this list as they continue to provide affordable service to millions of Americans.
Despite the fact that U.S. consumers rate USPS as America’s most essential business, the Postal Service finds itself in the crosshairs of a political effort to hobble the agency during a moment when it is needed most. Back in the spring, in the final hours of negotiations, emergency funding for USPS in the Phase III COVID-19 relief package was eliminated from the legislation entirely and replaced with borrowing authority conditioned on the Postal Service dramatically raising prices on package delivery services.
The imposition of a package tax would harm millions of American businesses and consumers -- particularly those in rural areas -- when it comes to the delivery of life-saving medications and social security checks and the ability of small businesses to compete and connect with customers.
Americans aren’t divided on this issue either. There is overwhelming support for providing the Postal Service emergency relief for emergency needs and in opposition to significant package rate hikes. In a poll conducted by Hart Research, 7 of 10 Americans oppose a “package tax” on package shipping. Meanwhile, 68% of Republicans, 77% of Independents and 87% of Democrats support emergency financial assistance to keep the agency running.
Access to Critical Healthcare
The Postal Service also plays an important role as part of the U.S. healthcare system, providing access for millions of Americans to the treatments they need to address chronic conditions. The Postal Service delivered over a billion prescriptions in 2019, and that number has gone up significantly as Americans increasingly turn to the Postal Service for medicine during the pandemic. Almost 90 percent of prescriptions shipped in the U.S. are delivered via the Postal Service. Unlike private carriers, the Postal Service operates as a public service. This allows the agency to deliver to every address in the nation and keep prices lower than those of private services.
Without the Postal Service America’s rural residents would no longer have access to affordable prescription delivery services. Individuals who don’t drive, have a disability or lack access to a pharmacy or healthcare facility would be stranded in a delivery desert with few options to access the treatments they need. Veterans are especially reliant on the affordable delivery services provided by the Postal Service to get the care they need. Nearly 100 percent of the mail-order prescription medicines issued by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs are delivered by the Postal Service.
During this time of economic uncertainty, the reliable delivery of packages and mail by the Postal Service is a critical source of stability for Americans. The Postal Service’s nationwide delivery network ensures that seniors continue to receive their social security checks and medications, families spread out across the U.S. can stay connected and e-commerce companies and small businesses can still deliver goods to consumers. If the Postal Service is forced to cease operations it would be especially harmful for small businesses and consumers in remote and rural areas, where private carriers either don’t operate at all, or they charge “rural surcharges”, which is the case in more than 20,000 U.S. zip codes.
A full 18 percent of Americans pay their bills through the mail, and more than 14 million Americans in rural areas have limited access to broadband. Residents of rural communities will continue to rely on the Postal Service to bank and pay bills. An inability to bank, pay bills and execute transactions would further alienate rural residents from economic activity and have a dire toll on rural communities as we enter an economic downturn that already has so many struggling.
Private Carriers Won’t Carry the Load
These scenarios make a strong argument for why we need an affordable, reliable and universal mail and package delivery network that can reach all Americans. But why couldn’t private carriers fill in those gaps in the absence of the Postal Service? Because meeting that service obligation would not be profitable for them.
The Postal Service is required by law to deliver to every postal address in every region of the country at a flat rate. An especially important mandate when you consider rural communities, where many residents cannot afford to pay a private carrier to deliver their essential goods. Reliance on private entities could further isolate already vulnerable populations. Private carriers don’t deliver to remote and rural areas because it isn’t profitable to do so. They depend on the Postal Service to do that for them. There would be no incentive to pick up that slack if the Postal Service went away, leaving those Americans stranded and without delivery access.
The U.S. postal system is the largest and most complex public delivery service in the world. Six days a week, USPS connects more than 159 million delivery addresses, in every corner of every state. Its services contribute more than $1.4 trillion to the U.S. economy and support over 7.5 million jobs.
Fortunately, there is a movement in the Senate to shore up this critical service. The Postal Service Emergency Assistance Act would provide much-needed financial support for the Postal Service to cover revenue losses and operational expenses at the hands of COVID-19.
The Senate and our country’s lawmakers must do everything in their power to ensure this relief is achieved. Our country depends on it.
John M. McHugh is a former Secretary of the U.S. Army and member of the U.S. House of Representatives; he serves as chairman of the Package Coalition.