By Mail or Meals: The Cost of Human Contact Is Priceless

By Lauren Anderson

It was a handwritten letter, in clear block printing, with an unfamiliar return address. Somewhat ironically, it was from our mail carrier, Richard, who had been switched off our New Haven, Connecticut route weeks ago.

He was writing to say that he missed delivering to our neighborhood, had started a new book and watercolor class, and sometimes ate lunch nearby in case we wanted to join him. It was an unexpected but characteristically human gesture.

Richard has been a regular part of our day for much of the five years that my partner and I have lived here in New Haven, and especially during summers when we, as professors, are mostly tethered to our home offices.

To be sure, many others work outside their homes or pick up mail from apartment buildings or condo complexes, local postal branches, or mailboxes on rural roads, and never get to know their carriers. In our neighborhood, too, there are those who rarely cross Richard’s path. But others do so frequently, including a recent widower, a jazz musician recovering from hip surgery, a night-shift construction worker, small business owners specializing in garage door repairs and house inspections, some resettled refugees, retirees, relatively home-bound elders, a good number of under- and unemployed folks, and a slew of kids returning from school or riding bikes.

To them and more, Richard has been a recognizable, reliable presence. He’s been the familiar face of a fairly taken-for-granted service that offers a bright spot for the public in these privatizing times.

Narrated by fiscal conservatives as “in crisis” since the mid 1990s, the United States Postal Service has been predictably targeted for possible privatization  in recent years. Yet for the past seven years it’s been viewed as the most trusted federal agency.

Still, it is in dire need of reform. The postal service keeps its $70 billion enterprise afloat without taxpayer dollars. And it has managed to survive despite being hampered by requirements that it prefund pensions in ways most any other government unit or business would be hard-pressed to survive.

Today its carriers deliver to 155 million homes, between Holtsville, New York’s 00501 to Ketchikan, Alaska’s 99950.

Like most all Americans, I count on it. For two decades of itinerant academic living across seven states, it has enabled me and all of us to send a letter for the same cost, regardless of ZIP code or circumstance. It does so while handling 47 percent of the globe’s mail volume.

With shipping demands booming, it has expanded to seven days of service, added 20,000 carriers, and seen its revenue on the rise — bringing its “in the black” total for the last three years to well over $3 billion.

The USPS has also successfully warded off proposals that would undercut its offerings by prioritizing high-traffic branches, closing others, and shifting labor to non-union retailers. In February, the postal service ended its partnership with Staples, shuttering 540 in-store counters and quashing plans for 1,000 more staffed by low-wage, non-union workers earning less than $10 an hour, compared to postal workers’ $25. It was a rousing win for labor, and for public service.

House Resolution 756’s progress through committee offers added cause for optimism. Described by its bipartisan cosponsors as placing the USPS on “sound and sustainable longterm financial footing,” the bill along with House Resolution 760 aims to correct burdensome retirement regulations, address healthcare costs, and authorize the USPS to offer non-postal services going forward.

While it’s unclear what those “non-postal” services might be, graduate students from Washington University in St. Louis recently put forward one great idea. Aimed at lessening widespread food insecurity and waste, they proposed leveraging for humanistic ends the USPS’s under-tapped logistical strengths as “king of delivery.”

These include established routes through every locality in the country, a ready fleet of trucks and drivers, and more than 30,000 branches nationwide, not all of which are in full use. The students’ idea is to engage these resources in the service of redistributing excess food to those in need.

It is a timely suggestion with so many now concerned about the future of Meals on Wheels programs, which face significant cuts in the newly proposed budget.

Meals on Wheels served 2.5 million people last year. It’s an effective service in need of preservation and arguably expansion, since it only scratches the surface concerning the public’s unmet nutritional needs.

It also offers, much like the mail service, far more than the material exchange at its core. It offers essential human contact that can enliven a day, abate loneliness, and stave off excessive costs of care by keeping people nourished in their own homes.

The value of these “soft” offerings were apparent to me even in childhood, when a few elders on my paper route — the same ones who lingered longest at the door — received meals and meaningful companionship through such programs.

And importantly, what’s rarely factored into conversations about these programs’ impacts are the benefits that accrue to those on the serving side. My own mother-in-law was in her 60s when she became a Meals on Wheels driver in her retirement years. On her regular route, she delivered to Margaret, who was 20-plus years her senior, house-bound, mostly alone, and eventually a dear friend.

Like any relationship, theirs generated mutual benefit and life-affirming purpose. There was love over a decade of delivery, loss when Margaret passed, and personal transformations, too; none of these were lessened by the likely failure of traditional cost benefit analyses to quantify them.

Though not as intimate or profound, our relationships with Richard — a single man of a certain age, seeking out connection — have reciprocal value, too.

Mail service and Meals on Wheels are more than the money they demand and produce. They’re part of the deeper social contract that defines public service in defiance of capitalism’s more dehumanizing profit-over-people aims.

At this moment, we are staring down a budget that proposes to slash social programs while infusing Department of Defense funding, a huge proportion of which pays private contractors.

In the words of Tupac Shakur, it seems, yet again, that those in power have “money for wars but can’t feed the poor.”

The USPS already generates profit for private companies. With recent wind in its sails and greater stability on its horizon, it’s an opportune moment to consider its potential as an engine for generating deeper benefit for the public good, too.

Now seems the time to ask what role the USPS might play in helping address pressing social issues, such as epidemics of hunger and loneliness. And may also be just the right time to imagine a future that builds on the postal service’s historic labor presence and its invaluable service to the public.

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