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Uncle Sam’s Use Of Snail Mail Is Still Rising

The federal government delivers Social Security checks and processes tax returns electronically, but its use of the old-fashioned mail systems is soaring nonetheless, according to a new study.

Declining mail volume overall has caused the U.S. Postal Service’s total revenue to plunge in recent years, but the federal government’s use of first-class mail jumped 11 percent between 1997 and 2010, according to research by two top officials with the Postal Regulatory Commission, which oversees the Postal Service.

In fact, the federal government was the largest single user of the mail system, accounting for more than 2 percent of the money spent on U.S. first-class mail last year, the authors said. States spend about the same each year to communicate with their residents.

Government agencies spent at least $1 billion each year on mailing and shipping over roughly the same period, plus another $200 million to $250 million on packages sent through private companies such as FedEx and UPS, the study by Michael J. Ravnitzky and J.P. Klingenberg concludes.

Ravnitzky and Klingenberg are chief counsel to the commission chairman and an economist with the agency, respectively. They make the case that the switch by federal, state and local governments to electronic communications with citizens may be overblown. And, they argue, the Postal Service can continue to count on governments as major customers, even as it fights for survival amid the surge in electronic communications. The authors’ views do not necessarily reflect those of the commission.

“One vital function of the United States Postal Service is to form an essential communications backbone of the government . . . ensuring reliable and timely delivery of communications essential to the functions of government,” the authors write. Their paper was presented this week at a conference at Rutgers University on the economics of the Postal Service.

Permits, benefits, voting materials, warning letters, surveys, military correspondence, employment and tax information, immigration documents, product recalls, security clearances, retirement information, regulatory compliance — all of this communication between government and its citizens is done the old-fashioned way, through snail mail or contracts with UPS and Federal Express.


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