The U.S. Post Office Is a Public Service, Not a Business

commentary

(The National Interest)

United States Postal Service workers load mail into delivery trucks outside a post office in Royal Oak, Michigan, August 22, 2020, photo by Rebecca Cook/Reuters

United States Postal Service workers load mail into delivery trucks outside a post office in Royal Oak, Michigan, August 22, 2020

Photo by Rebecca Cook/Reuters

by Michael S. Pollard and Lois M. Davis

April 6, 2021

When Postmaster Louis DeJoy was appointed by former President Donald Trump last May, he immediately instituted many unpopular initiatives intended to help the United States Postal Service (USPS) become more fiscally sound. These initiatives, including cutting letter carrier hours and the removal of mailboxes and sorting machines, resulted in delays in delivery and generated political concerns about the potential impact on mail-in ballots. The USPS experienced dramatic delays in the delivery of packages and bills that continued during the holidays and into the New Year, with businesses alerting customers that there would be delays in packages and billing statements.

Still in office, DeJoy recently released a ten-year reorganization plan for the USPS that includes lengthening delivery times by as much as five days for some first-class mail, cutting the hours of some post offices, and increasing postal rates, with austerity as the solution to USPS's challenges. The plan represents the largest cutback in services in a generation. Critics have noted that these initiatives may negatively impact small businesses (65 percent of National Small Business Association members use USPS over private shipping companies) and those individuals who rely on the USPS for prescription drugs or for financial documents, such as bills, paychecks, and stimulus checks—as well as the USPS workforce, which is disproportionately comprised of veterans and racial/ethnic minority employees.

However, the USPS is a service long beloved by the public. If anyone expected Trump's sharp rhetoric or the declines in on-time delivery had a negative impact on how people view the USPS, then they may be surprised. As part of a nationally representative RAND American Life Panel (ALP) survey fielded in May 2020, more than two thousand individuals were asked about their perceptions of the USPS and other federal institutions. The survey found that the public had a very high level of trust in the USPS as an agency; at the time, it ranked just below the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) but significantly above the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, and Congress.

The same respondents were surveyed again in October 2020, after DeJoy's initial changes were being implemented. That survey showed trust in the USPS actually went up, increasing significantly across the board—across political orientation, educational attainment, income, employment status, gender, race/ethnicity, rural/urban, and age. This occurred at the same time trust in the CDC plummeted (according to the same survey) as perceptions of the agency became increasingly politicized.

Why the counterintuitive result? It's likely because many Americans feel a personal connection to the USPS; they rely on it daily for basic needs. Let's not forget that U.S. protests last summer got many postal boxes returned and some sorting machine removal stopped. And with the coronavirus pandemic, people and businesses likely depend even more on the USPS now: package volume increased nearly 20 percent in 2020 compared to 2019.…

The remainder of this commentary is available at nationalinterest.org.


Michael Pollard is a senior sociologist and Lois Davis is a senior policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. Both are professors at the Pardee RAND Graduate School.

This commentary originally appeared on The National Interest on April 5, 2021. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.