Supporting Communities and Citizenship

Nonprofits mailed about 10.6 billion pieces of direct mail in 2014, not included mail sent at non-discounted rates. They sent about 1.3 billion pieces of First-Class Mail, mostly requests for donations or membership-related mail.

Source: 2014 USPS Household Diary Study

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Register and Vote stamp
Register and Vote stamp

Supporting Nonprofit Organizations

Nonprofit organizations are an important part of American life. About 1.5 million organizations are registered with the IRS as nonprofits. This does not include many more small associations that are not required to register since their revenues are less than $5,000 a year. There are about 14 million people employed in the nonprofit sector.

Congress has granted these nonprofit groups reduced postage rates. Charities, political parties and other groups reach out to potential donors to share information, build membership, create awareness and generate donations. Millions of Americans are involved in various causes, and donate about $260 billion annually – as much as $155 billion as a result of direct mail.

Binding the Nation Together 

The history of the postal system is one of establishing, maintaining, and strengthening a network of communication and delivery services. Committees of Correspondence, often members of colonial assemblies, helped spread information between local governments through the postal system that was critical to the American Revolution. From the beginning of America’s postal system, a primary responsibility of the mail was keeping the population informed. A well informed citizenry was believed to make the best decisions when voting. Examining the American experiment with European eyes, Alexis de Tocqueville was impressed with the combination of a far-reaching Post Office and affordable newspapers in circulating information critical to the nation’s success. In “Democracy in America” he wondered at the man who lives at the very edge of the new nation, who “plunges into the wilderness of the New World with the Bible, an ax and some newspapers. . . . I do not believe that there is as great an intellectual movement in the most enlightened and most populated districts of France.”

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50-Star Flag stamp
50-Star Flag stamp

The Meaning of the Post

In the mid-19th century the purpose of the Post broadened as lower postage rates made letter writing affordable to all. Information transmitted through the postal system grew from published screeds (often belonging to one or another political party) to personal tales - information shared between friends and family members. This ever-changing, growing network helped create the demand for, and creation of, newer systems of connections between people, including shifts in communication systems following the creation of the Internet.

The second half of the 19th century brought significant changes in the Post Office. New services such as Free City Delivery and Money Order changed how people interacted with their mail while the establishment of Railway Mail Service began a dramatic transformation on how efficiently and quickly mail was moved. A system that had focused on intercity post office to post office transportation expanded to providing services within the cities and post offices themselves. The nation’s rural population began to see a change in their mail system in 1896 when Rural Free Delivery was established on an experimental basis (becoming an official service in 1902).

Enforcing or Shaping Community Standards

The federal government, citizens groups and special interests have all used the mail to help share and enforce ideals of community standards. These efforts have come in many forms, including censorship of the mail at local and national levels. In the early 19th century, the Sabbatarian movement argued that the Post Office was guilty of moral transgressions by allowing the transmission of mails and opening of post offices on the Sabbath. During the Civil War and WWI, postal officials denied mailing rights to newspapers and magazines deemed to be dangerous to the war efforts. Mail censorship has also fallen upon items deemed to be obscene and licentious. The appointment of Anthony Comstock to an unpaid role as postal investigator and inspector (armed with the so-called Comstock Act of 1873), put the morality of mail content under examination.

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37-cent flag stamp
37-cent flag stamp

Citizenship and the Post

The Post Office itself can sometimes be an imposing structure within a community. Even when it is not, it remains a structure of import, representing sometimes the sole link with the federal government for a community. The sheer physical structure of the Post Office can reflect and represent federal ideals. The building itself becomes a community gathering spot. The place people have been drawn to for informal discussion, debate and even gossip.

This is where Americans register for the draft, how immigrants contact the old world and through which they’re helped to integrate into the new country, it’s where farm reports have been filed, tax forms are provided and filed and through which passports can be secured. Until recently this public space was used to alert the community to dangers via wanted posters. As states and communities turned to voting by mail, the Post Office has become a polling place. The postal system and the military have long worked together to enable prompt exchange of letters to and from service members on military bases, ships at sea, and at other overseas locations. Prompt and accurate handling of absentee ballots is another important responsibility, especially for Americans living or working abroad. Some states have addressed the cost of registering and voting operations, and the problem of generating higher voter turnout by working with the Postal Service to develop convenient and secure vote-by-mail programs.

Congress has Established Discount Rates for Certain Preferred Classes of Mail

Congress itself benefits from the use of the franking privilege, which supports communication with their constituents. Although for a brief period in the 1873 that privilege was revoked, Congress saw that it was reinstated in 1891. There is a category of mail called “Free for the Blind,” which benefits the dissemination of material for visually handicapped persons.