Tuesday, August 4, 2009

How Much Longer Will We Be Waiting on the Mailman?

News of the prospect of post office closings is jarring in a number of ways. Not that I am a big user of the postal system - you got it, I pay as many bills as I possibly can online. Which probably makes me one of the millions of culprits who have brought this possible calamity to untold numbers of Americans.

The United States Postal Service is running a 7 billion deficit, but this one doesn't have much to do with the recession. The Post Office has been facing this problem for years. Increased use of the Internet, UPS, FedEx, DHL, rising gas prices AND the economy have all taken a bite out of USPS profitability. The question is what will that mean to its viability in the long run?

"Postal Vice President Jordan Small told a congressional subcommittee that local managers will study activities of approximately 3,200 stations and branches across the country and consider factors such as customer access, service standards, cost savings, impact on employees, environmental impact, real estate values and long-term Postal Service needs."

"No changes are expected before the end of the current fiscal year on Sept. 30. There are 32,741 post offices."

""We anticipate that out of these 3,200 stations and branches, under 1,000 offices could be considered as viable candidates to study further," Small said."

Of course the Dallas/Fort Worth area is not immune to the impact of these sobering decisions.

"Also under the microscope are the main post office in Arlington and eight locations in Fort Worth, according to a list the Postal Service sent to the independent Postal Regulatory Commission."

""Every facet of our organization is under review, simply because we're losing $20 million a day," said McKinney Boyd, a spokesman for the Postal Service's Dallas district."

"Earlier this year, the Postal Service announced it was closing two other North Texas post offices – one in Irving, the other in Lewisville."

"The Irving station closed last month, but Lewisville officials are pleading to keep the Old Town office open. Its status apparently is still under review."

"The post offices under review were selected partly because they don't do enough business, are costly to operate or are close to other locations, Boyd said Monday."

"He stressed that the list is preliminary as the Postal Service continues to scrutinize its locations for potential savings amid a rapid decline in business because of e-mail. The Postal Service has handled 15 billion fewer pieces of mail so far this year than the same period last year, he said."

Whew! Even to someone for whom entering usernames and passcodes has become a way of life there's something serious about all of this!

Why?

Well, for one thing, I can remember when a job at the post office was a pathway to the middle class in a number of working class black communities. It was true for my father, my step-father, the chairman of the deacons at the church I pastored and any number of neighbors and church members I knew growing up. It was not only one of the most solid, job that paid well. For many it led to a college education, support while small businesses were started, education for the children and homeownership - not to mention a certain amount of respect in the community. Believe it or not, there was a time when to say you worked at the post office in the black community put you on par, class wise, with professionals. It meant a type of job security that you could hardly find elsewhere. And it always sounded as if there were an endless number of jobs that could be had at the post office: 'mail handler', 'mail sorter', 'delivery', 'truck driver', 'mechanic'. Like my step-father, I knew of many who stayed with the service until retirement.

For another thing, the rise of people like me for whom it takes almost two years to use one book of stamps, signals a new way of consumerism and communication that represents a social challenge. MySpace and Facebook, emails, instant and text messaging have virtually eliminated the need for letter and post card writing. We won't go into what that means to written word or (gasp) spelling! Paying bills on line is not just common place, it is convenient. Even purchasing items online is still another sublime complication afforded the consumer by technology, but is, at the same time, one of the things leading to the demise of familiar way of life. Remember waiting for the postman for that special item to come in the mail (ok, I'm really dating myself now, right?)? But the fact is, even with the postal service, there are a surprising array of services that are offered online.

Many in our poor communities who haven't caught up with the digital era, even after so much talk of the digital divide. Computers are cheaper, but their price is still out of reach of a significant number of people. And the more services are offered over the Internet - registration for social services, job applications, crucial payments and registration for payments become a matter of having a place to send and receive electronic information, the more we create a vulnerable segment of our population. This is a segment for whom, 'find a friend or relative' is not always a convenient option.

I'm pretty sure there will always be a post office. But the question is to what degree will they contract their operations until ordinary citizens are no longer their real customer base? And what will replace those 'entry level' jobs that actually propelled some people without college degrees into the middle class? There are, most likely, no immediate answers. As a matter of fact I'm sure things could be worse - I'm totally shocked that the post office doesn't offer Internet service.

Or maybe I shouldn't have written that!

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