The surprisingly powerful paper industry has geared up to fight the inevitable and unavoidable government transition from sending out paper checks and notices to doing so electronically. It has a very "vinyl record company lobbies against MP3s" feel to it, but the thing is? It has a point.
The Washington Post describes the advocacy group "Consumers for Paper Options," which has been doing media outreach, polling, and lobbying members of Congress to make a simple plea: don't move away from paper so quickly. The group got up and running in response to the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill in 2010, because of a proposal that would have required banks to put statements online. That never came to fruition.
The bigger issue for the group is how the government uses paper. The push to make government functions digital has two motivations. The first is that it seems inevitable, that just as your electricity provider and cable provider want to end paper bills and updates, so does your government provider. The second — and probably more compelling reason — is that it's cheaper. The Post's Lisa Rein points out that processing an electronic payment is more than 13 times cheaper than printing a physical check. It's a $1.16 difference that adds up when you scale it to the size of the American population.
The real legwork in Rein's report is tying this advocacy organization back to the paper lobby; specifically, to the Envelope Manufacturers Association. She asked Consumers for Paper Options director John Runyan if his clientele is paper manufacturers or the public, and he responded by saying that "the point is that a quarter of Americans do not have Internet access." After all, he said, "the glitzy new thing is to be pro-technology ... but a lot of government agencies are saying, 'We’re going electronic and the heck with it.'"
While calling technology "the glitzy new thing" somewhat downplays the massive shift in human society stemming from the advent of complex information networks, Runyan's point about internet access is correct. Both the Census Bureau and Pew Research put the number of Americans with internet access at somewhere around the 70 to 75 percent range in 2010. (The graph from Census is at left; the one from Pew, right.) And both organizations made an obvious but important finding: it is the elderly who are least likely to have access to the internet at home. In that Pew graph, you can see the black line at the bottom. That's the less-than-half of people over the age of 65 who had internet access in 2010.
That's an uncomfortable overlap for the government. People who comprise a large percentage of those receiving government support — people on Social Security or Medicare — are also those least likely to have the electronic systems needed to accept electronic payments and statements. Consumers for Paper Options has worked with groups like the Gray Panthers to make the case for not forcing rapid technology adoption onto senior citizens.
"We’re not just advocating on behalf of the industry," Runyan told the Post. Not just. And in effect, it's win-win: The paper industry benefits from wringing a few final years of largesse from the federal government, and those Americans who grew up with paper as the only option aren't forced into new systems. Just because lobbying is self-serving doesn't make it entirely wrong.