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The Surprising Case for Post Offices

Update: The public safety findings of this study were made by the National Association of Letter Carriers, the United States Postal Service and Valassis, a media and marketing firm. The Urban Institute never completed this portion of the study and thus has not independently confirmed the data.

The United States Postal Service is going broke. If Congress doesn’t pass a bill allowing the USPS to cut its budget by late September, the nation’s mail service will default on a $5.5 billion debt to the government. U.S. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe has proposed shuttering 3,700 post offices, cutting Saturday mail service, and laying off 120,000 workers (no easy task given their no-fire clause) to help foot the bill. But even if Congress allows Donahoe to take such measures by the late September deadline, our two-century-old postal service faces a long-term revenue problem. USPS has been losing money for the past four years—last year’s $8.5 million budget deficit was its largest ever, and the 2011 bill figures to be higher. By now, the foremost culprits for its declining revenues are well known: USPS receives virtually no government cash, provides employees unusually hefty pensions, and has lately proven it’s having trouble keeping up with the internet, which is taking away the business once provided by bill pay, credit card statements and, sigh, old-fashioned letter-writing.   

As news spread that the Postal Service was deep in the red, a predictable shrug emanated among the less sentimental of the commentariat. Casey Chan of Gizmodo issued pro-privatization rhetoric that we may soon see en masse from Congressional Republicans. “Heck, the only thing I need a physical mailing address for these days is to get physical packages,” wrote Chan, who prefers using UPS and FedEx anyways. “Every other piece of mail, from a love letter, to catalogs, to spam to a thank you note, just e-mail me.” In terms of correspondence and marketing, sure, the internet has proven itself a vastly more efficient purveyor than snail-mail. But is there any ancillary social benefit to having those familiar couriers wandering our neighborhoods every day?

According to a 2010 study by the Urban Institute, the USPS provides at least one major benefit most take for granted: public safety. According to the study, crime rates are higher in areas without post offices. The customer traffic around post offices makes for a safer business environment. The study also found that postal workers reliably watch out for suspicious activity and are frequently the ones dialing 911 during emergencies. Finally, of the 1700 missing persons cases the study tracked, 179 were solved thanks to local post-office mailings. On the other hand, if the postal service goes under for good, there may be one countervailing safety improvement: less to fear from disgruntled mail deliverers who pioneered a disturbing trend of “going postal.”