The president wants you to know that the United States Postal Service is “a loser.”
“We lose $3 and $4 a package on average. We lose massive amounts of money,” Donald Trump said in an interview with “Fox & Friends,” doing what critics of the post office often like to do: point to the agency’s deficits as an argument against its funding — or even against its existence as a public agency altogether.
But Trump and other critics get one thing wrong: The Postal Service doesn’t actually lose money. It relies on public funding to help cover its costs because it’s a public service — and it ought to remain that way. It’s right there in the name — and it’s right there in the Constitution, which authorizes Congress to establish post offices without a word about turning a profit.
Sure, the USPS often spends more money than it brings in, but categorizing that additional spending as “losses” rather than investments disingenuously treats the agency as a private business that needs to make a profit. Few people think of the National Park Service or the United States military as bureaucracies that “lose” money, even though they cost the government billions of dollars. So why should the Postal Service be treated any differently?
By design, the Postal Service was destined to spend more money than it makes. This was arguably best articulated in the Postal Policy Act of 1958, which stated that the post office is “clearly not a business enterprise conducted for profit.” To the contrary, Congress noted, mail delivery is a public service that promotes “social, cultural, intellectual, and commercial intercourse among the people of the United States.” Indeed, the post office was thought of by the Founders as a means to connect Americans to each other at little cost, and to ensure that the public is well informed — a critical need for any democracy, especially a young one as the United States was at the time — by subsidizing the delivery of newspapers.
For most of its existence, the post office was a federal department and the postmaster general was a member of the president’s cabinet. As a result, Congress funded it just as it did all other federal departments. That changed in 1970, when Congress, under Richard Nixon, passed the Postal Reorganization Act, which turned it into an independent federal agency that was required to cover most of its costs, with little help from Congress. Since then, the rhetoric of “profits” and “losses” at the post office took hold.
That put the USPS at an untenable disadvantage: It’s incentivized to think of itself as a business in order to cover its own costs — an easy task for its current Board of Governors and postmaster general, who are almost all former businessmen — while also being responsible to provide extremely expensive services without increasing prices to an unaffordable degree — a more difficult concept for its business-oriented managers.
It’s worth looking at all government agencies for waste and potential ways to save — and to avoid costs that aren’t necessary or in taxpayers’ interest. But in the end, even if the Postal Service is expected to break even, it is unproductive to think of it as a business, and it’s detrimental to its long-term viability. Millions of Americans rely on the post office to pay bills, receive medication, and vote in elections.
It’s also worth noting that while the Postal Service might not be turning a surplus each year, its existence helps stimulate the economy like few other agencies can. According to a recent study by the Envelope Manufacturers Association, nearly 5 percent of all US jobs are in the mailing industry, in which the USPS is the biggest player, generating nearly $1.6 trillion in sales revenue. The post office itself employs over 600,000 people, providing a stable job with decent benefits to all of them. This has had a disproportionate benefit for Black people, who make up about 20 percent of USPS workers. It’s more useful to think about the service as a public good, like roads and schools, that enables other economic activity, rather than as a business itself.
So contrary to what the president said, the United States Postal Service is not “a loser.” It’s the most beloved public agency in America because it provides a public service to everyone, including people who private businesses would never reach. None of the money it spends is a loss; it’s an investment in the greater social good and in our democracy.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.