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Post Office Woes or End to a Federal Institution?

The author examines the history of the Postal Service from its historic roots up to today and believes that the advent of new communication technology as well as competition from private companies will eventually lead to further demise of the organization as we know it.

By Cynthia Demming

In 1775, the first Postmaster General Benjamin Franklin was appointed by the Continental Congress and the birth of the post office system that delivered information and messages for its citizens throughout the eastern coast was established. The first stamp was issued in 1847, while in 1856 street mail boxes were first used. The United States Postal Service continues to make history today.

Many of the reasons that a post office service was established was based on the need for families, friends and businesses to communicate in a timely, but safe manner. Originally information, goods, and money were sent via coast to coast on steamships, via horseback, riverboats, wagon trains or other means of transportation in the early 1800s, but this took a considerable amount of time, often many weeks.

In time, the stagecoach was driven by a team of six horses and the establishment of overland routes throughout the US in 1860 appeared on the scene. The original stagecoach system, known as the Pony Express, was used not only for transferring mail, but also money between citizens, banks and merchants. The stagecoach system was owned, guarded and operated by a business for profit on twice-a-week service routes between San Francisco and St. Louis, El Paso and Los Angeles, along with routes within states. The need to safely transfer money to and from cities was one of the first reasons that a reliable mail service of this kind was established.

Not long after, with the advent of the railway system in 1862, the Department of Post Office was further established, where trains were used to experiment with mail delivery by sending mail from city to city.

Eventually with the introduction of cars, the mail service evolved into using “mail on wheels” establishing uniform postal rates regardless of distance.

Then in 1896, free delivery was implemented to include rural residents and farmers via a system of post offices. In later years, the postal service expanded to include transcontinental, international, Trans-Pacific and Trans-Atlantic airmail with the advent of airline capabilities.

The US Postal Service up until recently was one of the few ways in which businesses, consumers and banks transferred money via checks. In 1964, the first self-service mail was introduced as a means to cut costs and provide added convenience to customers. With zip-code scanners, mail sorting devices and other innovative services like express mail and stamps by phone, the post office continued to implement ways to reduce costs and attract customers.

However, with the recent advent of automatic bill pay, ATMs, and other forms of electronic money transfers, the need for this postal service to transfer money has been diminishing each year. This is only one of the reasons that the Federal postal system has been in trouble. Many point to the financial problems that arose as far back as the early 1960s, when pay rates for employees and facilities far exceeded the rates of revenue brought in by postal rates.

In the 1970s, the Post Office Department evolved into the US Postal Service, which was composed of an independent identity under the Executive Branch of the Government of the US. This service was governed by a board and allowed to issue bonds to finance facilities and improvements in mechanization, facilitate management of union postal employees, along with a Postal Rate Commission that could set rates.

As competition from Fed Ex and UPS and other mailing services increased throughout the years, the mounting financial problems increased for the US Postal Service throughout the 1980s. Shipping via these means has led to the lessening need for the US Postal Service package and shipping service. The surging Internet with instant electronic means to communicate has also lessened the need for mailing letters or cards.

As of the first quarter of 2012, the Postmaster General has announced the planned closure of thousands of mail facilities, possible reduced services on Saturdays, changes to benefit and retirement programs for employees and reduction in employees, and end to layoff protections. Reasons that the US Postal Service is now headed for extinction are mounting. There is much concern that the Federal postal employees if laid off or faced with the end to their employment may have an adverse reaction and “go postal” so to speak when the inevitable demise occurs.

Despite this dismal realization, there seems to be little doubt that due to the voting process which relies on mail-in ballots for elections, that there will be somewhat of a delay resulting in closing of these mail facilities around the nation until after 2013. Once the government figures out how to successfully vote via Internet or by using some type of electronic means to conduct elections and absentee balloting, there will be no doubt that the US Postal Service will be adversely affected and over time eliminated, not just for the financial headache that it gives us, but for the mere fact that its clientele has diminished considerably.

No one can argue that the advent of text messaging, instant chat and use of mobile devices to communicate has certainly put a damper on need for postal services. Will the onset of businesses using social media to communicate with customers eliminate the “junk mail” and “store catalogs” that composed most of the larger mail-outs? Will consumers switch to email and e-greetings to send holiday cards and birthday wishes?

Cynthia Demming is a business consultant and technical writer, graduate of University of Washington, and writes on a wide variety of subjects and guest posts for Degree Jungle and leading magazines like Newsweek and USA Today.