Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The continuing postal saga: rural implications of stopping Saturday service

The first two months of 2013 have been an interesting ride for the United States Postal Service. First, the USPS has been dragged down by Lance Armstrong's fall from grace following his admission of doping and being stripped of his Tour de France titles (however, the USPS may be able to recoup some of the sponsorship dollars they fed into the Armstrong team). Secondly, the recent announcement concerning the ending of Saturday home delivery of mail. And finally, in a headline pulled straight from Project Runway, the USPS announced the introduction of a new line of clothing. The surprisingly not-a-joke "Rain Heat & Snow" fashion line will be available for retail and is being billed as a revenue building endeavor. Ladies, don't get too excited, this inaugural line will only be available for men.

Although the implications of the fashion line are rife with opportunity for comment, this post will delve into the cessation of Saturday delivery of mail. As previously documented on this blog, decisions to cut back mail service impacts rural communities at a higher rate than urban communities, and is often ignored by main-steam media.

On February 6th, 2013 the USPS announced plans to end Saturday delivery of mail across the country. The changes won't take effect for six months in order to give consumers and employees time to make plans. The end of Saturday service comes after years of discussions about ways to make the USPS financially sound, with the most recent year posting a $15.9 billion deficit. The end of Saturday service is expected to save USPS $2 billion annually, which will make a bit of a dent in the deficit currently being experienced.

The largest reason articulated for the USPS change to the delivery schedule is consumer support for ending Saturday mail delivery. Early polls by national news networks from 2010 through 2012 indicate that there has been wide-spread support for ending Saturday delivery. Between 67 and 71% of Americans surveyed were in support of switching to 5-day delivery in the various polls.

USPS has recently released a survey that demonstrates support for the 5-day delivery schedule across geographic boundaries. The survey cited by USPS was conducted between February 8th and 11th by the research company IPSOS. One thousand and two US residents were surveyed and the study had a 3.1% margin of error with a 95% confidence letter. The responses are categorized by the respondent's geographic location, designated as either Urban, Suburban or Rural. Although the USPS doesn't include definitions of these geographic definitions or provide information as to the number of participants in each category, it is important to acknowledge USPS's attention to geography and place. Perhaps this change in approach and express inclusion of geographic responses is in anticipation of a well-organized response from rural consumers, similar to the response that ended previous plans to limit service to rural communities.

Although USPS's direct acknowledgment of differences between urban, suburban and rural perceptions about mail service is important to acknowledge, the currently cited survey does not strike me as genuine. The small sample size coupled with a failure to define the geographic populations mentioned is concerning. The timing of the survey cast additional doubts on the validity of the sample, as the survey was conducted only two days after the decision to move to 5-day service was announced to the public. Additionally, subsequent questions in the survey appear phrased in ways to support favorable results. Finally, the survey was conducted solely on the basis of internet responses. As has been previously documented, broadband and internet resources are not readily available in rural areas. Rural residents who are filling out surveys put out by USPS are likely not the residents who rely on Saturday home delivery services as a connection to others.

The survey initially divides responses to a question about support of the shift to a 5-day a week delivery schedule. In this first question (found on page 3), 76% of Rural respondent's support the switch to 5-day delivery. While urban and suburban dwellers support the decision at 81% and 82% respectively. The introduction to this question states that the observed differences in the areas are not statistically significant. While the 6% difference between rural and suburban dwellers is within the +/- 3.1% margin of error, it is right on the far end of the margin. It seems disingenuous to disregard this difference in the poll, especially one with so few participants and such a large margin of error.

The USPS survey goes on to close the gap between rural and suburban dwellers by introducing the current budget deficit as a reason to end Saturday service. In a subsequent question relating to the move to 5-day service being linked to allowing the postal service to be financially stable, the number of supporters in all geographic areas jumped to 85-86% (see page 7). This questions appears particularly misleading especially in light of the fact that the reduction to 5-day service will eliminate less than 8% of the USPS operational deficit.

Anecdotal evidence provides a more faceted picture of rural resident's reactions to the changes in the home delivery schedule. In rural California, resident's provided viewpoints on both ends of the spectrum in response to ending Saturday home delivery. A particularly compelling piece by Vermont Public Radio paints the rural post office as an enduring social centerpiece of the community. Al Floyd, a local general store owner in Brookfield, VT laments: "I think they will but they're going to take the heart right out of the town," he says. "It gives it a name. I mean, we got a ZIP code!"

Despite dissatisfaction amongst rural residents, USPS is in a serious financial crisis. A recent LA Times article suggests putting USPS in charge of expanding broadband services throughout the United States. As noted above, the limitations of the current broadband system cast doubt on the published USPS survey. Could an expansion of broadband solve reductions in home delivery?

Perhaps it is a start, but there may be additional barriers in play for many residents of rural American. The shortage of home broadband has been documented amongst seniors, along with the low number of seniors owning laptops or smartphones. Might these fiscal barriers or computer literacy issues come in the way of broadband expansion being the answer to decreased home mail delivery?


Hannah said...

Maybe I'm falling prey to a nostalgic image of rural America, but the thought of rural post offices bearing the brunt of USPS's attempts to shave its deficit make me sad: the post office as meeting ground, as the center point for communication local and distant, is a potent symbol for a past that may be slipping away in the era of e-mail and text messaging. As a kid, I would write and receive letters to and from traveling parents, camp friends and far-away relatives - now I just receive bills, and fewer of those as things have gone "paperless." I don't know about the validity of the USPS survey, but I do know that reducing the post office's utility and convenience by reducing its scope of service has the possibility of the first step in a longer decline. I hope that we don't let it go too far down slope.

sky said...

Good article but no comment on the law requiring the funding of 75 years of pension/health care benefits in a 10 year window?? Stop that insane attack on the Postal Workers and problem solved.

Lisa R. Pruitt said...

Thanks for this post. In the interest of getting other relevant resources to readers' fiingertips, here are some earlier posts about threatened post office closures which discuss the impact of these closures on rural America:





And this recent op ed in the NYT regarding the proposed Sat. closures links the issue to the history of our nation and the post office. In doing so, it also gives a nod to the rural angle:


Jake Alexander said...

Thank you for sharing this post. I found it very informative and interesting. There are many ways to look at postage solutions. I agree that we need to stop the attack on postal workers. They do not make the policies.