In an article about postal service, an illustration by Baz Pugmire
The differences might just look cosmetic, but oftentimes, they go deeper. (Illustration by Baz Pugmire, Michigan State University)

How the Postal Service Works Around the Globe

What can 55 cents get you? As it turns out, a trip across the country. A closer look into what the postal service looks like in developed countries around the world.

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In an article about postal service, an illustration by Baz Pugmire

What can 55 cents get you? As it turns out, a trip across the country. A closer look into what the postal service looks like in developed countries around the world.

One of the more unprecedented events that happened this summer was President Donald Trump’s call to cut funding to the United States Postal Service (USPS), claiming that mail-in ballots could be fraudulent.

Around the beginning of last month, photos that showed the removal of mail sorting machines and blue collection boxes circulated on the internet. Combined with heightened awareness around voting during this election year and the near-universal approval of the USPS by Americans, President Trump and Postmaster General Louis DeJoy came under intense scrutiny.

It’s important to first clarify that many images of the iconic blue collection boxes being hauled away are not entirely true.

As this Vox article explains, some collection boxes are undergoing refurbishment, or at least, the boxes in the above tweet are. However, it is true that in other areas, blue collection boxes are being removed, and the USPS is also planning to retire 10% of its mail-sorting machines.

Trust in the government is decreasing, and with each passing day, many younger Americans feel more and more distanced from public institutions. However, one exception to that is the postal service, and it’s something that we’ve hugely undervalued and should give more recognition to. However, to best understand what the USPS accomplishes, it’s important to look at both the postal service in the United States and in other developed countries.

The United States

Since its creation, the USPS has been a responsibility of the federal government. The right to receive information and communicate, or to have a working postal system, is synonymous with the right to vote.

Throughout the centuries, mail has been delivered through a variety of ways, like horseback, boat, train and even pneumatic tubes. Over the years, the difficulty of providing every home in the country with a mailbox increased dramatically, especially with population booms and the sheer size of the United States.

Being a public entity, the services of the USPS are extremely affordable. With only 55 cents, someone can send a piece of mail to any location in the United States. However, the fact that the USPS receives no taxpayer funding, combined with the decreasing amount of mail delivered each year, has made the USPS unprofitable.

The USPS is also required by the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA) of 2006 to pre-fund retiree health costs out of current income. While employment benefits for USPS employees are rightfully generous, the unique burden of reserving current income for the future health costs of its employees does impact the USPS’ profitability.

Perhaps tangential, but even more interesting, is the impact the USPS has had in other parts of American society — specifically with zip codes. To handle the increasing demand put on the USPS in the mid-1900s, the USPS introduced a Zone Improvement Plan (ZIP) that has been universally adopted since.

All Americans can attribute the first three digits of their ZIP code to the sectional center facility that serves their area, hinting at the enormity that is the postal service system in the United States. After all, the USPS does deliver “48 percent of the world’s mail,” suggesting that even among developed countries, mail infrastructure in the United States is pretty impressive.

The United Kingdom

What the blue collection box is to the United States, the red post box is to the United Kingdom. Considered a British cultural icon, the boxes line many streets in Britain and its overseas territories.

Obvious differences aside, one of the larger differences between the postal services in the U.S. and the UK is their respective owners. Royal Mail Group, Britain’s primary postal service company, has recently transferred to private ownership.

Up until 2015, the government owned Royal Mail, much like the U.S. does the USPS, but the Postal Services Act 2011 allowed Royal Mail to sell their shares to investors on the London Stock Exchange.

Despite being a publicly-traded company, 25% of Royal Mail Group’s shares are still held by its employees, which could suggest its employees are treated very equitably. The annual turnover rate in the company is low, at 6.7%, and benefits bear many similarities with the USPS’ retiree health coverage programs.

Finally, Royal Mail has a “one-price-goes-anywhere” policy similar to that of the USPS, and this affordability doesn’t come at the expense of employee benefits.

Japan

The postal service in Japan is similar to the U. S. and the UK in that it was originally a responsibility of the government. However, similar to the UK, Japan Post, the public corporation that handled most of the country’s mail, began its first steps toward privatization in 2007.

Today, Japan Post Holdings, a publicly-traded company, leads the postal service system in Japan. At the same time, full privatization has faced delays, and more than 50% of the company’s shares are still owned by the government.

Beyond government ownership and funding, what makes the postal service in Japan different from the USPS and Royal Mail is that it offers more than just mail delivery; it also offers banking. Japan’s postal bank takes deposits and provides loans, which are extremely attractive for people that want the confidence of a banking system backed by the government.

Takeaways

As seen through the U.S., the UK and Japan, postal services have usually been a responsibility handled by the government.

However, whereas government entities are often criticized for being slow to modernize, something exemplified by NASA’s outdated technology compared to that of private companies like SpaceX, postal services have been an exception. Like many other countries’ postal service systems, the USPS has steadily mechanized its functions, oftentimes out of necessity. Mail is a foundation for any country.

Across all three countries, the postal service has a lofty goal of providing an efficient delivery system for all of its citizens at an affordable price. It’s only natural that these corporations tend to operate without profit in mind, while still remaining financially viable.

When so many elements rely on a robust postal service system — like social security benefits, employment, public records and voting — it should be optimized, but not at the expense of its equitable operations.

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has since said that “mail processing equipment and blue collection boxes will remain where they are” until after the election, but it’s important to keep in mind that long after this important election passes, the USPS needs your support.

It’s true that less people rely on the postal service today than before; in 2000, USPS delivered 207.9 billion pieces of mail, compared to 142.6 billion in 2019. But cost-cutting measures like “canceling overtime for mail carriers” can lead to mail that never gets delivered. Cost-cutting measures are good, but not if they come at the expense of the postal service’s functioning.

If you are looking to support one of the foundational systems of our society, consider sending mail. Maybe to a friend or a pen pal, or just to establish written communication and the joy that comes from receiving a physical package. The USPS doesn’t receive support from taxpayer dollars, but it does from stamps. Fifty-five cents will take you a long way in the U.S., not just for your mail, but for the USPS as well.

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