The Role of the United States Postal Service in the Age of COVID-19
Photo by Mike Segar/Reuters
The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has claimed many victims and is threatening to claim another one—the United States Postal Service (USPS). In May 2020, a statement from the USPS said that the its main source of revenue—letter-mail volume—had dropped dramatically as businesses cut back on sending advertisements and bulk mail and that it will exhaust its cash on hand by the end of September. Unlike other federal agencies, the USPS does not receive tax dollars for its operating expenses; instead, it relies on postage and product sales and services. Given these dire circumstances, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a $3 trillion coronavirus relief package on May 15 that included relief funds for the USPS, although the Senate is unlikely to consider the bill. However, this is not the first time the USPS has needed federal relief, and this request is being debated in Congress in light of whether we need the USPS at all, given the other private delivery services that are now available.
As part of a nationally representative RAND American Life Panel (ALP) survey about how Americans are coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, which was fielded from May 1 to May 6, 2020, we asked more than 2,000 individuals about their perceptions of the USPS; their concerns about handling mail and packages during the COVID-19 pandemic; and how they felt USPS compared with private courier companies, such as FedEx and United Parcel Service (UPS).
Overall, this survey found that the public places a very high level of trust in the USPS as an agency; it ranks just below the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) but significantly above the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the U.S. Congress (see Figure 1). These results are consistent with a long history of surveys indicating that the public holds a highly favorable view of the USPS. Furthermore, our survey found that trust in the USPS is significantly higher in rural communities than in urban communities.
Respondents also were asked to compare the USPS with such private courier services as FedEx and UPS on the COVID-19–related safety measures each uses. Roughly half of the respondents indicated that they believed that the handling procedures for USPS and couriers "were about the same," while one-third indicated that they did not know. Among the minority who did express a belief that one had safer procedures than the other, rural residents reported that they felt that the USPS was safer 75 percent more frequently than they did for private couriers; among rural residents with a preference, 64 percent believed that the USPS was safer, while 36 percent believed that couriers were safer.
Such results are not surprising. They echo findings from a 2008 RAND study that showed that 89 percent of Americans felt that the USPS was more reliable than private couriers; more than half of that study's respondents preferred having only the USPS access their mailbox (compared with allowing private couriers or other companies access as well). Forty percent of respondents felt that allowing couriers to deliver to their mailbox would make their mail less safe, and 77 percent reported that increasing the sorting, processing, and transportation of mail by private companies would increase their concern about security breaches and crime.
One contributor to the USPS's enduring value is that it is the only mail and package delivery system that has a universal obligation to provide service to every delivery point in the United States, regardless of whether it is profitable.
Furthermore, the USPS plays an important role in "last-mile deliveries," in which private couriers contract with the USPS to deliver packages or items to a location beyond the courier's delivery network where it is more cost-effective to use the USPS delivery network. The 2008 RAND study concluded from an analysis of last-mile deliveries that the USPS's safety and security screening likely was better than that of the originating private companies.
Although large companies, such as Amazon, have increasingly developed their own delivery networks, as recently as July 2019, the USPS delivered about one-third of Amazon packages. Amazon also noted that the USPS would be a major part of facilitating one-day delivery in rural areas.
As the research shows, the USPS plays a more central role in smaller and rural communities, where it often serves as an information hub, not just a postal center. For example, a recent survey by NORC at the University of Chicago found that rural customers had more-frequent social interactions at post offices. For much of rural America, the USPS is the only delivery option. In 2017, the USPS delivered mail across 229,000 routes, of which about 75,000 (33 percent) were rural routes. Among its 157 million total delivery points in 2017, 43 million (27 percent) of the residential delivery points were services on rural carrier routes, in addition to the 1.6 million (1 percent) that were rural route business delivery points.
As Congress and the White House debate about how to assist the USPS, these new findings—bolstered by our past research—should help policymakers understand the unique role the USPS plays, especially in the age of COVID-19.
-  Kristin Lee, "The US Postal Service Now Has 5,000 Employees in Quarantine and Only Enough Cash to Last Through September," Business Insider, May 18, 2020. As of June 15, 2020: https://www.businessinsider.com/usps-postal-service-run-out-money-september-coronavirus-covid-19-2020-5
-  Jacob Pramuk, "House Democrats Pass $3 Trillion Coronavirus Relief Package," CNBC, May 15, 2020. As of June 15, 2020: https://www.cnbc.com/2020/05/15/coronavirus-updates-house-passes-3-trillion-relief-package.html
-  A technical description of the survey, which includes details about the ALP, the objectives of the survey, and information about the fielding of the survey, is available in Katherine Grace Carman and Shanthi Nataraj, 2020 American Life Panel Survey on Impacts of COVID-19: Technical Documentation, Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, RR-A308-1, 2020. As of June 4, 2020: https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA308-1.html. Additional information on the technical aspects of the ALP is provided in Michael Pollard and Matthew D. Baird, The RAND American Life Panel: Technical Description, Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, RR-1651, 2017. As of May 29, 2020: https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1651.html
-  Pew Research Center, "Public Holds Broadly Favorable Views of Many Federal Agencies, Including CDC and HHS," April 9, 2020. As of June 15, 2020: https://www.people-press.org/2020/04/09/public-holds-broadly-favorable-views-of-many-federal-agencies-including-cdc-and-hhs/
-  Lois M. Davis, Michael Pollard, Jeremiah Goulka, Katherine Mack, Russell Lundberg, and Paul S. Steinberg, The Role of the United States Postal Service in Public Safety and Security: Implications of Relaxing the Mailbox Monopoly, Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, MG-800-USPS, 2008. As of June 15, 2020: https://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/MG800.html
-  Lois M. Davis, Michael S. Pollard, Jeremiah Goulka, Katherine Mack, Russell Lundberg, and Paul S. Steinberg, How Would Relaxing the Mailbox Rule Affect Public Safety and Security? Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, RB-9396-USPS, 2008. As of June 15, 2020: https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RB9396.html
-  Rachel Premack, "Lawmakers Are Sounding the Alarm on the Coronavirus Shuttering the USPS by June—and it Could Mean Chaos for Your Amazon Deliveries," Business Insider, March 25, 2020. As of June 15, 2020: https://www.businessinsider.com/coronavirus-usps-shutdown-chaos-amazon-2020-3
-  Dennis Green, "Amazon Says It's Cutting its Prime 2-Day Shipping Guarantee to Just One Day," Business Insider, April 25, 2019. As of June 15, 2020: https://www.businessinsider.com/amazon-changes-prime-shipping-one-day-2019-4
-  Office of the Inspector General, United States Postal Service, Addressing the Diverse Needs and Wants of Rural America: Opportunities for the U.S. Postal Service, Arlington, Va., No. RISC-WP-19-009, September 16, 2019. As of June 17, 2020: https://www.uspsoig.gov/document/addressing-diverse-needs-and-wants-rural-america-opportunities-us-postal-service
-  United States Postal Service, FY2018 Annual Report to Congress: FY2018 Annual Report, FY2018 Comprehensive Statement of Postal Operations, FY2018 Performance Report and FY2019 Performance Plan, Washington, D.C., 2018. As of June 15, 2020: https://about.usps.com/who-we-are/financials/annual-reports/fy2018.pdf
-  U.S. Department of the Treasury, United States Postal Service: A Sustainable Path Forward—Report from the Task Force on the United States Postal System, Washington, D.C., December 2018. As of June 15, 2020: https://home.treasury.gov/system/files/136/USPS_A_Sustainable_Path_Forward_report_12-04-2018.pdf