Saturday, September 17, 2011

You've got mail ... kind of

Legal Ruralism has previously highlighted the problem of post office closure in rural areas in February, in March and again just earlier this month. But I'm blogging about it again because I agree with the Daily Yonder that issues which disproportionally affect rural areas tend to get only a moment's recognition and are quickly forgotten by the often urban centric mainstream news. Unfortunately, rural communities continue to be plagued by the threat of impending closure of countless more post offices.

The Post Office has 574,000 employees, making it the second-largest civilian employer in the United States, excluding the federal government (Wal-Mart of course being the largest). However, the U.S. Post Office has been hit hard economically with the advent and proliferation of e-mail, online bill-paying, fax, and competition from 
Fed Ex, UPS and DHL. Despite cutting $12 billion and eliminating 130,000 jobs over the past four years, Postmaster General Patrick Donohoe told Congress earlier this month that the Postal Service is "at the brink of default."

In his comprehensive letter to Congress on September 6, Donohoe further highlighted the importance of the postal service, the bleak current financial situation, and strategies to address its projected $10 billion loss by the end of this fiscal year. Steven Greenhouse's September 4th New York Times article had a comprehensive report summarizing the proposals including: eliminating Saturday mail deliver, close 3,700 offices, laying off 120,000 employees (despite the no layoff union clause postal service employees enjoy), withdrawing from the federal retirement system and getting $6.9 billion in overpaid retirement funds returned. Many of these strategies will hit rural areas the hardest, and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are up in arms.

Montana will suffer a great blow if the proposed USPS recovery plan is adopted because that plan would close 85 post offices and four postal processing facilities in the state. Montana Senator Max Baucus admonishes the postal services for not realizing the disparate negative effect closing post offices has on rural communities, an effect not felt by urban communities. She said, "[c]losing a post office in Alzada or Rapelje is not like closing a post office in Washington, D.C., or suburban Virginia and Maryland. Folks simply cannot drive a few blocks to reach another."

According to
Missouri Senator, Claire McCaskill, Missouri has 167 proposed post offices closures and “eighty-five percent of those are in counties of less than 50,000 residents.” Further, McCaskill pointed out the importance of Saturday delivery to rural communities in a September 7 press release, noting "[rural] communities’ reliance on the postal service for access to news, goods, and services that may not be available through other means."

Not surprising, rural elderly and disabled individuals will feel the impact the closures most. The Wall Street Journal quoted Dr. Brian Willoughby, of West River Health Services in Hettinger, North Dakota, who echoed this sentiment saying, "[w]hen they cut these services, there are multiple spinoff consequences for these older people out there in the middle of nowhere, but the bureaucrats sort of forget about that." For one thing, many cannot drive the distance to another post office (or at all), but they can walk to their local post office. Not only are alternative post offices far away, the 2008 Carsey Institute report points out that in rural areas " basic services, such as banks, schools, and hospitals might be 50 to 100 miles away." With major hospitals and pharmacies so far away from remote patients, a pharmacist could rush prescriptions to the local post office. Senator Susan Collins of Maine strongly opposes ending Saturday delivery as the cutback would be tough on people in small towns who receive prescriptions and newspapers by mail.

Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia values the importance of the Postal Service stating that "[t]he post office is part of America as anything I know. And we’re going to do everything we can to fight, see if we can help make it efficient, be able to deliver services to our communities. It’s basically a lifeline to our rural communities." West Virginia Congressman Nick Rahall, also shared his thoughts about the importance of rural post offices with Greg Jordan of the Bluefield Daily Telegraph (highlighted first by both The Daily Yonder and The Art of the Rural).

The post office itself is often the identity of small town USA, and when you close the post office, it’s literally the nail in the coffin for that community. People go to the post office not only to receive mail, which is sometimes could be prescription medicines or some form of communications. They also socialize with their family and friends at the post office, learn what’s on their neighbors’ minds, and they gather to support community projects or issues. It’s ironic that in order to have these required hearings on these post offices, the only place big enough is the post office.
Our founding fathers respected the importance of mail, believing it to be a "basic and fundamental" government function meant to "bind the nation together" by providing service to "all communities." While the artery that connects all parts of American society may one day be electronic, rural areas continue to lack access to broadband and even when they do, it may be painfully subpar. But for now the post office serves as a means by which rural towns can stay connected to the rest of the nation, and without them post office closures further exacerbate the negative effect of the spatial isolation felt by rural communities. 

For these towns, who's local school closed years age and reliable broadband has yet to arrive, when you take away the post office all you have left is a ghost town. "When they close the post office, they probably won't even come up here anymore and clean the roads," says Delmer Clark, a 70-year-old retired coal miner in Eastern Kentucky's Appalachian Mountains. A Siouxland (a region that encompasses the entire Big Sioux River drainage basin in South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska and Iowa) local news channel quoted Clifford Faust, a life long 84-year old rural resident, who said, "[w]e got a post office, a gas station, and a pizza ranch. That's all we got." This effect only fuels the ongoing problem of rural population loss; one rural problem local lawmakers are currently throwing money at to fix

The most chilling words about the rural effect of post office closures (in fact it literally gave me goosebumps) was written by Carol Miller, a community organizer from Ojo Sarco, New Mexico (pop. 400) and an advocate for Geographic Democracy, in the Daily Yonder. She said:
Nothing brings home to a community how absolutely unimportant they are to the federal government more than losing a post office. First you lose the post office, then you lose the zip code and, the final blow, for postal purposes you lose the very name of your town.


Lisa R. Pruitt said...

Also, don't miss JLS's post last week on this topic:

Not surprisingly, two post offices in my home county, Newton County, Arkansas, are slated for closure. I have mentioned both post offices in blog posts over the years--they are at Parthenon and Ponca. Patricija refers and links to the post about Parthenon, but here is one featuring Ponca (whose post office is the same pre-fab type as Parthenon's!)

Further, for an update on the possible closures and information on what you can do, please go to the website here:

I understand that less than 1% of the USPS budget goes to rural post offices, so are they really the most effective place/way to cut?

Patricija said...

I made sure to add LJS's post into my own. Its amazing how much action this has been getting since LJS's post. It is also interesting that this is not a U.S. only problem.

Last year the Telegraph reported a similar effect in the U.K. in this article:

It echoed the current U.S. problem almost exactly including: 1. more rural post offices were closed than urban (1 in 3 rural post offices – 2,334 were shut between 1999 and 2009), 2. the devastating “game changing” impact on local communities, 3. the larger impact on the elderly and vulnerable, and 4. the humanity aspect of showing rural people and communities that they matter.

Namora said...

I think this post was great in highlighting how the post office closures marginalize an already marginalized population. Given the lack of broadband and internet access in many rural areas, rural people are being even further isolated from information exchange and the market. It is crazy to think that in some areas, not only can you not order a book online, but even if you do, it might not be delivered!

JLS said...

Another trend I've read about since writing my post is the closing of postal processing locations. ( Although fewer processing centers than post offices would close, the impact on the entire U.S. population might be greater. Mail will be slower and may get routed in strange ways.

A few years ago, I met with constituents from rural Elko County, Nevada about this issue. The Postal Service had closed their nearest processing center and so mail from, say, Reno is now sent to Salt Lake City for processing and then back west to Elko County, NV. It added a whole day to normal delivery schedules. Oversize or oddly sized mail was even worse. It seems that these kinds of closures could also really impact rural America.

Scarecrow said...

Why is it the federal government's job to keep these tiny towns afloat? If a community cannot sustain itself without a post office, maybe it shouldn't continue to exist. I don't think "sustaining rural culture" is a good enough reason if it means cutting other programs. Of course, if the alternative was to raise taxes, then I'm all for keeping the post offices.

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