When it comes to the most American thing you can think of, does the United States Postal Service make your list? This institution is as American as apple pie, with roots stretching as far back as the Revolutionary War era.
So what is the USPS today? How does it serve the citizens of the United States? If you’re curious about all things USPS, look no further for answers! I’ve researched USPS in-depth, and here’s what I’ve discovered!
What Is The USPS In 2023?
The United States Postal Service is an independent agency of the Executive branch of government, which guarantees the delivery of mail to every address in the US as of 2023. Under the leadership of a board-elected US Postmaster General, the USPS is also one of the nation’s largest employers and delivers almost half the entire world’s mail.
To learn more about the purpose and history of the USPS, its affiliation with the government, and how it’s funded, keep on reading!
What Is The Purpose Of The USPS?
The US Postal Service’s mission statement states the institution is designed to bring people all over the nation together by delivering mail.
Further, USPS strives to deliver letters and packages as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Put another way, the Postal Service is perhaps one of the most effective tools for ensuring democracy and equity amongst the citizens of the U.S.
Therefore, by ensuring that every citizen has access to at least one form of outside communication, the Postal Service is essentially a safeguard against tyranny.
How Did The USPS Start?
The founding of the U.S. Postal Service takes us back to the founding of the nation and one very famous individual in particular: Benjamin Franklin.
Inventor, author, and statesman, he was also appointed the first Postmaster General in 1775 by the Continental Congress.
Thus, he was able to continue the work he’d been doing for 20 years previously, establishing regular, well-traveled delivery routes around the colonies.
By doing so, Franklin sped up delivery time to be twice as fast as before (particularly between major cities like Philadelphia and New York).
That said, Franklin laid considerable groundwork for later generations, and as a forward-thinker, he was very much a product of his own time.
So, it’s easy to see how we still reap the benefits of Franklin’s genius when we interact with the USPS today.
How Long Has USPS Been Around?
The beginning of the United States Postal Service can be traced to the 1750s when Benjamin Franklin established and formalized a mail delivery system in the US colonies.
With William Goddard, Franklin’s postal system of the 18th century “became the standard for the new US Post Office and is a system whose basic designs are still used today.”
Moreover, Franklin’s appointment as Postmaster General in 1775 by the Continental Congress marked the official founding of the Postal Service (then called the US Post Office).
So in 2021, the Postal Service has been around 246 years – and counting!
Is USPS Part Of The Government?
The U.S. Postal Service is a government agency; in fact, its existence is set into law through the American Constitution!
So, that means that dissolving or disbanding the Postal Service would be considered unconstitutional. However, the USPS is an independent agency.
That said, it means that the President cannot appoint the US Postmaster General.
Instead, the President can appoint the Board of Governors who elects the Postmaster General, but those board members have to be confirmed by the Senate.
Thus, the President is unable to (for nefarious reasons or otherwise) directly choose the leader of the Postal Service.
Despite that fact, the USPS benefits from the protection of the federal government and the Constitution.
And we, their customers, do as well. For example, the mail is federally protected; anyone who steals or tampers with mail can be convicted of a felony.
Also, while USPS employees are not technically federal employees, they are nonetheless afforded the same benefits as if they were.
Does The Government Fund The Post Office?
It might surprise you to learn that the US Postal Service is not funded by the government or taxpayer dollars.
Instead, the agency’s operating costs rely solely on retail sales.
Unfortunately, this has become a huge issue in recent years, as revenue has dipped, forcing the Postal Service to make more and more adjustments.
For example, the most recent shift in operating standards occurred in 2021, when the newly appointed US Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy, announced a financially minded ten-year plan.
To kick it off, DeJoy outlined how the Postal Service would be raising prices on postage (stamps permanently and shipping services temporarily).
However, the biggest reaction occurred when he announced USPS would be slowing down service on First-Class mail, a move that could potentially put lives in danger.
Now, that might sound extreme but consider the founding of the Postal Service as a tool of democracy, essentially giving even the most rural residents a lifeline.
That said, most rural citizens rely on USPS for things like medicine delivery or agricultural necessities.
Therefore, slowing down their service when the item in question is a crucial disease goes against the mission of USPS.
Despite these major drawbacks, the Postal Service’s funding source is not actually at the core of its financial problems.
Why Is The Postal Service In Debt?
The issue’s root can be traced to 2006 when Congress passed the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Law.
With that, one of the items in this bill included a clause that stipulated the Postal Service would have to “prepay its employees’ future pension and health benefit costs.”
Currently, USPS is the only government agency required to do this.
In 2019, according to HowStuffWorks.com, the prepay accounted for over 80% of the Postal Service’s losses.
Also, mail delivery via the Postal Service is a Constitutional right, so the agency isn’t going anywhere despite how bad things seem.
For example, if the Postal Service did become completely financially insolvent, it would require a government bailout.
But, its continued reliance upon postage and service sales is only growing into a deeper problem with each passing year.
How Does USPS Work?
Consider how vast the Postal Service system is: hundreds of thousands of employees, tens of thousands of Post Offices, and distribution centers.
Also, it runs an international delivery network in partnership with one of its main competitors, FedEx.
So how does it all work? Let’s go through a simplified but illuminating look at the journey of a mailpiece, according to HowStuffWorks.com.
Whether you schedule a pick-up, place a letter in your mailbox, or drop it off at the Post Office or a street box, the first step is to collect the mailpiece.
After you take your mailpiece to your local Post Office, it joins all the other outgoing pieces of mail and heads to a processing plant.
The processing plants are highly mechanized, with machines sorting, separating, and even organizing (they flip envelopes, so they’re all facing upward!).
At the processing plant, the mailpieces are assigned their barcodes based on the destination zip codes.
Next, they’re sorted by barcodes/zip codes, with like mailpieces heading off onto trucks together.
This initial barcode scan, which sorts mail by zip code, is generally the first update you might see on USPS Tracking.
That said, it lets you know that USPS officially has the mailpiece in its possession.
Travel, Near And Far
The Postal Service has its system for determining how and when parcels stop at different processing plants (or distribution centers).
Sometimes, if your mailpiece only has a short distance to travel, it might not require any mid-journey processing.
On the other hand, cross-country mail could require three or four different stops to scan, process, sort, and continue.
Each time, the zip code (represented by the barcode) determines which pile the mailpiece gets sorted into.
Final Sort And Delivery
Every piece of mail goes through one final processing plant sort before it heads out to the destination zip code’s delivering Post Office.
From the Post Office, the mailpieces are divvied up to their corresponding mail carrier and given a scan to mark them “Out for Delivery” when they’re on the truck.
Finally, the mail carrier then places the mailpiece into the recipient’s mailbox, marking the end of the journey.
The Postal Service performs the constitutionally guaranteed act of delivering mail to every address, no matter how remote, in the United States.
So, while the agency is currently in financial distress due to excessive debts, its importance to the everyday American and the fabric of democracy cannot be overstated.