ON OCT. 4, three days after the U.S. Postal Service implemented degraded standards for first-class mail, ensuring delivery will be slower than in the 1970s, it announced it was getting into a new business: check cashing.
The experimental service is taking place in four cities: Washington, Baltimore, the Bronx in New York, and Falls Church, Va.
USPS has $188 billion in unpaid debts and long-term liabilities, chronic annual losses of $9 billion, and has defaulted on more than $45 billion in retiree health care and pension contributions since 2011.
Yet it is flirting with diving into—yes, wait for it—banking.
America’s leading progressives—including Senators Bernie Sanders, I–Vt., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D–N.Y., along with Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio–Cortez, D–N.Y.—are pushing quite hard for postal banking. They want to provide sprawling new government programs through the country’s more than 34,000 post offices.
The central argument for postal banking is that millions of Americans are unbanked and exploited by payday loan companies and related enterprises that charge onerous fees for check cashing and other financial services. Unbanked means not having a checking or savings account at a bank or credit union.
While any exploitation of the poor is despicable, the numbers simply do not show that being unbanked is a widespread crisis, or that having USPS enter this business is the best way to solve the underlying problem.
An Oct. 19, 2020, report by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. found that 5.4 percent of U.S. households (approximately 7.1 million households) were unbanked. This is the lowest level since these studies began, with the rate down significantly from 8.2 percent in 2011.
The FDIC study found that 56.2 percent of the unbanked were not at all interested in having a banking account, while only 24.8 percent were very or somewhat interested in having a bank account.
And the unbanked do have cost-attractive options. For example, Walmart charges a maximum fee of $4 for cashing checks up to $1,000, with funds put on a card, and allows up to three checks a day to be cashed.
Under USPS’s pilot program, it charges $5.95 to cash checks only up to $500 and also puts the funds on a card.
The mission and purpose of USPS for the last 245 years has been to deliver mail. It is the only entity that can do this essential public service.
Even in the internet age, mail remains important, with 50 billion pieces of first-class mail sent annually. Yet the delivery standard for 39 percent of first-class mail was lengthened by at least a day starting on Oct. 1.
A critical lesson from USPS over the last 15 years is that when it gets away from its unique public and historical duty, mail delivery suffers. This is borne out by USPS’ intense focus on increasing package delivery over the last 15 years, a competitive product for which customers have many alternatives.
Today, packages account for just 6 percent of total volume, yet the focus on growing this enterprise has caused mail standards to be reduced twice since 2014 and contributed to USPS’ financial difficulties.
Postal banking is much farther afield from USPS’ core mission of logistics management and mail delivery.
There will soon be aggressive pushes to have USPS open savings accounts. Not far behind will be demands for low-interest credit cards, mortgages and auto loans. The aim of progressives is to make USPS a mammoth government lender and to change banking as we know it.
This raises many questions. Is USPS going to offer Venmo-type payment options? Accept Bitcoin for payment? How much depositor and customer data could be stolen by hackers?
Banking technology is changing rapidly and critical to bank service today. USPS does not have the funds to scale up into a widespread banking enterprise.
And taxpayers should not foot the bill for this experiment or be the backstop for USPS’ financial services losses.
A 2018 Treasury Department task force report on USPS got it right when it said, “Given the USPS’ narrow expertise and capital limitation, expanding into sectors where the USPS does not have a comparative advantage or where balance sheet risk might arise, such as postal banking, should not be pursued.”
USPS is faltering at its critical mission: timely mail delivery. Postal banking distracts from that mission and will create even more staggering financial losses at USPS, while doing little if any good.
Paul Steidler is a senior fellow with the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. He wrote this commentary for InsideSources.com.