The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Black and Blue at the Post Office

As a massive government linked bureaucracy with offices in every county in America, the US postal system is possibly the most prominent symbol of the Blue Social Model in the country. Tuesday’s announcement that thousands of post offices will be closing to reduce costs is a major step towards the rollback of that model, a process which will define the coming era of American politics. The change will not be painless.

Earlier this year, I argued that the Blue Model has become the backbone of the Black middle class since the 1960s:

The Black beneficiaries of the blue social model include the bulk of the Black middle class whose emergence is one of the great American success stories of the last half century.  Once victims of discrimination, Blacks gained access to federal, state and local government jobs in the last fifty years.  Today, Blacks hold a larger share of government jobs (pdf) than their percentage of the population would alone account for – and government employment represents a significant percentage of Black middle income families.  Teachers, police, fire-fighters, sanitation workers, health workers: Blacks are often strongly represented in state and municipal workforces, especially of course in urban areas with large Black populations.

This is especially true of the Postal Service, which has been a significant source of Black employment for well over a century, allowing many to rise out of poverty and join the ranks of the middle class. Blacks are still overrepresented among postal workers, and will be hardest-hit by these closings. In a new piece in the New York Daily News, Phillip F. Rubio agrees:

When I think of the post office, I don’t just think of an agency that delivers to all homes and businesses in the nation. I think of the postal job I got in 1980 – first as a distribution clerk, then, soon after, as a letter carrier. This was a job that helped us buy a home and send our children to college, helped put my wife through graduate school and allowed me to go on and continue my education and earn a doctorate in history in 2006.

It all began after the Civil War, when African-Americans were first allowed entry into the postal workforce. By 1970, blacks, making up one-fifth of the postal workforce, were twice as likely to work at the post office as whites. Today, thanks in large part to union activism in the post office, in which African-Americans played a prominent part, the doors have been further opened for women and for other minority-group members.

The decline of the Blue Social Model is going to have different consequences for different social, economic and racial groups in this country.  The financial crisis means that reform can and must come more quickly than many had hoped; that is a recipe for contentious and polarized politics.

Necessary, but not nice.

Published on August 11, 2011 12:10 pm
  • Whit

    Will the closure of these branches really hit blacks harder? Its my understanding that the majority of these under-performing offices are rural in nature which would imply that urban postal jobs for the most part will be secure. Certainly in my area, Postal Offices slated for closure are in rural areas, only employing one postmaster. Can anyone shed light on the overall demographics of the closure list?

  • LT

    The postal service should be a case study in failure of the blue model. How can an enterprise that has a monopoly on letter delivery (forget packages, etc. they lost that a long time ago), and is tax exempt, and can raise prices on customers at will, go bankrupt? I don’t get it.

    Is it because, like public transportation operations, they lose money because they don’t have a competitive labor market and the service provided to citizens becomes secondary to job sinecures, pension benefits, etc. to employees? In other words is the “job creation” the primary purpose of the enterprise and the actual service provided a lesser consideration?