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Post Office Calls for Portable 'Vanity' ZIP Codes

The U.S. Postal Service has not lost its mind; it has no plans to allow portable zip codes.
Art Silverman, NPR
The U.S. Postal Service has not lost its mind; it has no plans to allow portable zip codes.

Today on All Things Considered, NPR's Andrea Seabrook reported that the U.S. Postal Service plans to launch next month a national "Portable ZIP Codes" program. Under the program, Americans would be able to keep their current ZIP codes no matter where they moved, whether across the country or across town.

The portable ZIP codes program is entirely fictitous, an April Fools' joke from All Things Considered. ZIP codes will remain fixed to specific geographic locations; the post office has no plans to allow Americans to take their ZIP codes with them, wherever they go.

Read Seabrook's Story:

Late last year, the Federal Communications Commission, the FCC, ruled that phone customers would soon be able to keep their telephone numbers with them when they changed carriers. That made it possible for a person to retain a familiar number even when switching, say from Sprint to MCI, and even from traditional phone service to cellphone service.

At the time, no one anticipated the cascading effect this would have. Now the concept has spilled over onto another branch of the federal government. NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports on the latest expansion of portability.

If you were sitting far in the back of the packed conference room you may have missed the smile that broke across the faces of the 15 Postal Service employees on the rostrum. But smiles they were indeed — as the afternoon's surprise announcement was read at the end of the usual daily briefing to reporters by Assistant Postmaster General Lester Crandall.

"I'm pleased to announce a new feature of our ongoing "Go Postal" campaign," said Crandall. "It's yet another step to modernize our postal system and satisfy our customers.

"Every year millions of Americans are on the go: People who must relocate for work or other reasons. Those people may have been quite attached to their original homes or an adopted town or city of residence. For them this innovative measure will serve as an umbilical cord to the place they love best.

"So it is with great pride and pleasure I tell you that starting next month, the national Portable ZIP Codes program will commence. With it, American citizens can keep their present ZIP codes wherever they chose to live, across the country or across town."

Crandall said that while the plan would at first take some getting used to, the kinks could easily be worked out. He's expected to meet with representatives of the nation's mail carriers next week to work on details.

While the portable ZIP code bid is subject to approval by the joint House-Senate congressional oversight committee, it's expected to face stiff opposition in the Senate Select Committee on Communications Technologies.

"This is like Kinko's expanding its reproductive services to include gynecology," said Sen. Phil Spigel of Arkansas.

He spoke with NPR by satellite phone from south Sudan, where he is on a fact-finding mission with the singer Cher.

"Call me old-fashioned, but ZIP codes were meant to stay put," he said. "They serve a clear, unambiguous purpose: They tell the postal worker on his or her rounds where you live. When I return to Washington at the end of the year — to ZIP code 20016, to be exact — I'm certain I'll be thinking long and hard of maybe voting against it. Possibly."

But many people feel otherwise. A modern, mobile society — they argue — can no longer afford to remain grounded in locale-specific ZIP codes. Proponents of portability say a ZIP code is a badge of honor, an emblem symbolizing a citizen's place in the demographic, rather than geographic, landscape.

Ricky Jenoffer, a stockbroker, supports the new program.

"I was born and bred in Kenosha, Wis.," Jenoffer said. "I use to spend my winters ice-fishing with friends. But my company moved me to New York City, which was hard enough. But then the post office said I had to change ZIP codes. I couldn't be 53142 anymore. And that hurt. It was like I was out on the lake fishing you know, and suddenly like the ice wasn't here."

The stationary system of ZIP codes has been in place for decades, and in that time those five numbers evolved from just a series of digits to a status symbol — like an expensive watch or a handsome hairpiece.

For years critics of the post office insisted that opposition to mobility of ZIP codes was a ploy by the Postal Service to further exert control over people's lives. Rex Morgan heads Citizens for Retention of All Postal Services.

"They just didn't get it," said Morgan. "They didn't understand that people work hard to get a 90091 ZIP — moving shouldn't disconnect them from that part of their lives. Number are no different than names. You wouldn't want the government to tell you you had to change your name when you moved to El Paso, would you? So why should you be shamed by being stripped of the number you may have grown up with when you move? I applaud this new plan."

The new vanity ZIP code feature is only the latest addition to the Go Postal program, which began last April 1. USPS officials say Go Postal has already been a success, with millions of dollars of new revenue coming from the introduction of pop-up ads on postage stamps. They are hoping to issue the first portable ZIP codes by April 1, 2005. But first the House subcommittee must override an anticipated veto by a two-thirds majority of dissenting members. If that passes, the full Senate will have to take up the three riders attached to the bill by the postal subcommittee. If that fails, then only a 4-5 measure in both houses can pass. Only time will tell where this all stands.

Written by All Things Considered producer Art Silverman.

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Andrea Seabrook
Andrea Seabrook covers Capitol Hill as NPR's Congressional Correspondent.
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