What do we want? Mail! When do we want it? NOW!

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MailbagsMy 3-year-old daughter, an old soul, has taken to letter writing in her toddler block-print. She has spent many an evening catching up on her correspondence with grandparents, aunts and uncles, and Santa. She likes the act of writing itself, likes placing the stamp just so and applying the return address label. And most importantly, she is in awe of the magic of placing a sealed envelope in our mailbox and knowing that someone will come to our house, pick it up, and deliver it wherever we want it to go.

When I stop and think about it, I share in her awe. It is an amazing thing that the U.S. Postal Service provides daily mail service across the entire country. The Postal Service processes an average of 554 million pieces of mail each day, employs 546,000 career employees, and handles 40% of the world’s mail volume. (And did you see the Batman stamps?)

But recently, we mailed my brother, who lives in Chicago, one of my daughter’s carefully printed and illustrated letters. It took almost ten days to get there. And increasingly, even for mail going only a few towns away within Maine, I’ve noticed that mail is taking two, three, even four days to get there.

That slow-down is real: the Postal Service reports that mail now takes an average of 2.1 days to be delivered nationwide, up significantly from 1.8 days just a few months ago. Gone are the days of next-day mail.

Slower mail is the result of the Postal Service’s recent decision to close distribution centers and put fewer resources into regular mail service, in an effort to cut costs. That policy change will have serious consequences for workers (and residents) in Maine, particularly in rural areas.

Today, in both Portland and Augusta, postal workers are rallying to raise public awareness and oppose the Postal Service’s policy changes. Tim Doughty, president of the postal worker’s union local in Portland, says that the Postal Service’s policy decisions will “reduce the relevance of the Postal Service” and lead to a “downward spiral.” The union represents a significant number of Maine workers, including more than 500 members at the Scarborough mail distribution center and another 200 in Hampden. (At one point, the Hampden distribution center was at risk of being closed, although it was taken off the closing list, at least for now).

It’s easy to think that, in an age of email, online banking, text messaging and emojis, “snail mail” has lost its relevance. But regular mail delivery is still a huge part of daily life, both for individuals and businesses. That’s particularly true in rural areas, where there may be limited internet access available, and for lower-income households that can’t afford computers and internet access. A recent study showed that a full third of those who earn less than $20,000/year don’t go online at all, and another third go online but have no internet access at home.

Senator Collins echoed the union president’s sharp criticism of the Postal Service’s policy, warning that the Postal Service’s actions are “self-defeating” and could send the Postal Service into a “death spiral”). Let’s hope today’s rallies are a first step in the effort to avert that death spiral.