As the COVID-19 pandemic spurs unprecedented layoffs, business closures, and general economic havoc, the US policy response has largely focused on trying to put fires out as they arise rather than following a long-term strategy to contain the economic wildfire. This is flawed but certainly understandable thinking, as it can be incredibly hard in the midst of an unprecedented crisis to discern which problems need our immediate attention.
If we’re interested in the long-term survival of our most basic institutions, however, we’re going to need to think about the bigger picture a little bit more – and that starts by saving the US Postal Service.
Right now, the US Postal Service is facing a massive budget shortfall due to the COVID-19 crisis, and has said that they won’t be able to continue operations past the summer if they don’t get a bailout from the government. President Trump and GOP leaders have either expressed open hostility towards the idea or suggested an outlandish number of strings attached to any bailout money that all but ensure the Postal Service will fail again.
Congress cannot allow this. Rescuing the US Postal Service – and securing its future for years to come – is a critically important issue in preserving our democracy and securing a lifeline to thousands of American communities.
Rescuing one agency of the federal government may not seem like such an important issue compared to the multi-faceted crisis of COVID-19, but the consequences of letting USPS fail are unthinkable.
First and foremost, it would be next to impossible to conduct a fair and open election this November without the USPS. An emerging scientific consensus agrees that the Coronavirus will be with us at least through Fall 2020, meaning that our citizens will still be at elevated risk of contracting the infection or infecting others in November if we conduct this election in the traditional way. Keeping people safe, of course, doesn’t remotely mean that we have to sacrifice or postpone the most basic tenet of American democracy – it just means we need to allow every citizen to vote by mail, and we certainly need the nation’s mail service operating at full capacity to do that.
The consequences of refusing to transition to mail-in voting during this pandemic have already played out in states like Wisconsin. The state went forward with in-person voting on April 7th, with the election marred by an unprecedented number of poll closures, long and unsafe lines between voters, and a statewide stay-at-home order that forced thousands of voters to choose between risking their health or exercising their fundamental democratic rights. The US simply cannot afford to replicate that disaster on a national scale come November, and relying heavily on the USPS is the only way to make sure that we don’t.
Secondly, the USPS is an absolutely critical employer for hundreds of thousands of Americans – particularly those in communities most vulnerable to the worst consequences of COVID-19. The USPS employs over 500,000 Americans, and was long the single largest employer of Black Americans, who still make up over 20 percent of its workforce. For decades, working for the USPS was a surefire gateway to the middle class for systemically impoverished Black citizens, and it remains one of the few institutions that offer good wages and benefits to marginalized people.
Eliminating those 500,000 jobs would have a devastating outsized impact on Black Americans, forcing thousands into unemployment which would eliminate their healthcare and put their families at risk. This would be especially heinous considering health data shows that Black people are by far the highest at risk for the worst complications of COVID-19, including death. Saving the USPS means investing in – and providing emergency workplace protections for – the country’s Black workers who form the backbone of this essential service.
Finally, without the USPS, hundreds of thousands of rural communities across the US would lose an absolutely critical lifeline to government services and benefits. The ability to receive mail is such a basic expectation that many of us couldn’t even fathom what our society would look like without it, but it would certainly exacerbate our existing inequality problems to an unacceptable level.
Having a mailing address is the first step to establishing a relationship with your local, state, and the federal government, as it is essential for basic services like filing taxes, receiving benefits, conducting business, being counted in the Census, and countless other affairs. For people in rural areas, it is the only way to receive desperately needed packages and correspondence from an outside world that would otherwise be completely inaccessible. Losing that access would separate society even further into the haves and have nots and would cause a complete upheaval in how millions of citizens have a relationship with their governments.
Letting the USPS crater would be an unthinkable mistake for the future of our country, and luckily, it is an entirely preventable one – as long as Congress finds the will.