Credit: Amy Swan

Arlene and her two young children had recently been evicted from their Boston apartment. She had defaulted on her student loans and lacked sufficient savings to pay first and last months’ rent on a new place. Her family was living in a shelter. 

But Arlene (a client of one of my colleagues at the National Consumer Law Center; her name has been changed) was confident the situation would be only temporary. Between withholding and the Earned Income Tax Credit, she was expecting a check for nearly $7,000 at tax time—money she hoped would be her family’s ticket back to a measure of stability. But when Arlene filed her taxes, she discovered that the government had seized her entire credit to offset her defaulted loans. The official notice had been sent to her old apartment; she never saw it. By the time Arlene consulted with a legal services attorney, it was too late to seek a waiver for financial hardship. A letter was missed, a lifeline lost.

Versions of Arlene’s story play out every day across the country. Children lose public benefits when paperwork is mailed to their parents’ old address. Predatory creditors win default judgments against alleged debtors who never see notice of their required court appearances. For undocumented immigrants, the consequence of missing a mailed court notice is typically an immediate order of deportation. Just last year, the Supreme Court ruled that states may purge citizens from their voting rolls if they fail to respond to mailed notices from election officials—an invitation that has been eagerly accepted by many states with long histories of voter suppression. 

These horror stories, along with lesser hassles, all stem from a simple root cause: changing your address is a massive pain. Even in the digital era, crucial communications are sent by mail—addressed to fixed geographic locations, rather than directly to people, which is almost always the intention. After each move, our mailing system requires us to identify all the different people and offices who might ever want to send us mail—government agencies, friends and family, newspapers and magazines, banks and doctors—and then inform each of them about the change. When we leave someone off that list, or if they get the addresses confused, mail goes to our former residence. Although the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) offers mail forwarding, that service eventually expires and is, anyway, good for only one move—creating gaps that result in lost mail and stale contact information.

Every year, about one in seven Americans changes mailing addresses. But certain groups—including young adults, members of the armed services, low-income renters, and domestic violence victims—move at rates significantly higher than the average. One study found that more than half of poor families moved to a different neighborhood in a two-year period, compared to around a third of higher-income families. These disadvantaged communities are doubly hurt. Not only do they tend to move with greater frequency, but they also are more likely to be mailed the sorts of things that can be disastrous if missed, like upcoming court dates and crucial bills. 

Almost all of us can relate to the frustrations of this outdated system. Over the twenty-six years that my mother served active duty in the military, my parents kept a thick manila folder of subscriptions, customer accounts, and personal contacts. Every few years, when she got a new work assignment, we’d spend long hours updating the contacts from this list with our new mailing information. I continued this task after I left home: in the nine years since I graduated from college, I’ve lived at sixteen different addresses—each new one the result of the sort of personal and professional life transitions that spur nearly one in three young American adults to move
every year. 

When people don’t get important mail, their children lose public benefits. Predatory creditors win default judgments. Undocumented immigrants who miss court notices are deported. These all stem from a simple root cause: changing your address is a massive pain.

But there’s an easy fix. To take the pain out of changing addresses, the USPS should allow customers to register for unique, portable, and permanent “mailing PINs.” These PINs would be connected to your preferred delivery address. Following any relocation, you would simply log in to the USPS website (or stop by the local post office) and change the address linked to the PIN. Anyone who has your PIN will always be able to reach you by mail, no matter how many times you move. No more dealing with magazine subscription service departments or change-of-address forms. No more missed mail after moves. 

In addition to facilitating permanent relocations, these PINs could also reroute mail during temporary living situations like seasonal jobs or internships, shared custody arrangements, extended vacations, or stays with friends and family during financial emergencies. This portability would be akin to your ability to keep a cell phone number after switching carriers—a right that has been protected by the Federal Communications Commission since 2003—or a permanent personal email address. 

Mailing PINs would also give us greater control over our personal information. Right now, any website or company you’ve ordered something from could have a record of your home address in a database that is vulnerable to breach—a concern magnified by recent retail hacks and the rise of “peer-to-peer” transactions facilitated through sites like Etsy and eBay. Under this new system, it would be possible to order packages without divulging exactly where you live. All you would have to do is provide your mailing PIN. Only the USPS would be able to connect it to your home address. 

This would be especially helpful for people with reasons to worry about their safety. Research suggests that victims of domestic violence, for example, are particularly likely to move frequently. Mailing PINs would allow them to receive correspondence from their abuser, a practical and legal necessity in a whole range of common situations, without disclosing where they sleep each night.

Governmental reforms are often organizationally complex or politically tricky. This one is neither. Mailing PINs would build onto existing delivery infrastructure. The USPS already uses a system of digital scanning and identification codes to process most mail. There is no technical reason why it couldn’t incorporate the small extra step of matching PINs to specific delivery addresses. Because this feature is an extension of the existing mail delivery service, rolling out mailing PINs could be done under existing legal authority, without requiring new legislation. The costs of transitioning to this system are likely to be reasonable, mostly up front to update processing software. And it would be voluntary. Customers who prefer using their physical addresses—and businesses or governments that want to deliver to locations, not people—wouldn’t have to do anything differently. Deliveries could still be made using physical addresses, just as they are today. 

I am not the first to propose such an idea. In 2013, the Postal Service’s inspector general drafted a memo discussing the potential benefits of a “virtual PO box” that would allow users to digitally redirect their mail to other addresses. But the proposal was little noticed at the time and never gained traction within the agency. Meanwhile, a growing number of start-ups have aimed to reimagine ways individuals and businesses receive physical content, for example through paid “smart mailbox” services that scan customers’ physical mail and deliver its digitized contents to their email inboxes. But the benefits of these services, which target consultants and business executives, are available only to those who can afford them—precisely the group least vulnerable to change-of-address mishaps to begin with. 

With only a few manageable changes to its processes, the USPS could provide an even more useful and comprehensive version of these conveniences for every American. Doing so wouldn’t be entirely free of difficulties. There would be logistical challenges—for example, in calculating shipping costs. And mailing PINs would not completely eliminate missed mail. People with extreme housing instability may move so often that it’s impractical to update their address each time with the USPS. 

But this proposal would have enormous benefits for people who find themselves in difficult circumstances—people like Arlene. It could prevent impoverished families from losing public benefits after they move. It would help ensure that people don’t miss court notices. It could make it harder for states to purge citizens from their voter rolls. More broadly, portable mailing PINs would increase everyone’s data privacy, reduce the costs of moving and the volume of lost mail, eliminate a common business expense, and make it easier to stay in touch with family and friends. The Postal Service has the authority to make this commonsense idea a reality. It should do so.  

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Follow Brian on Twitter @bd_highsmith. Brian Highsmith is a Skadden Fellow at the National Consumer Law Center. He was a policy adviser at the White House National Economic Council from 2012 to 2014, where his portfolio included issues relating to the U.S. Postal Service.