Monday, February 14, 2011

Post Offices as community lifelines

In response to Marta's observations concerning how catalog shopping can benefit rural communities, I was shocked to see an article written today in USA Today concerning the loss of post offices in rural communities due, in large part, to advancements made in the digital age, particularly the widespread use of the internet to purchase postage.
The prospect of losing a post office is alarming people in small towns everywhere. The post office gives area residents a reason to come to town — and patronize other businesses there — and provides a service they count on and believe their government owes them.

"Rural life has taken quite a beating, and losing the post office would probably be the nail in the coffin," says Jack Hutchinson, chairman of the Iroquois Farmers State Bank based here.

He'd rather pay more for postage or do without Saturday delivery than lose the red brick post office on Main Street, where the bank drops off or picks up 40 or 50 pieces of mail daily. Here and in many small towns, there is no door-to-door delivery.
It is true that while many of us might gripe about long lines at post offices, the occasional damaged package, or increased postage fees, most people living in urban America take for granted that a post office is within the town limits of the place we live. Door-to-door postal service makes it easier for us to forget that post offices can be places that carry much more significance to people in places like Iroquois, Illinois [Population: 207], the town featured in the article mentioned above.

Without a central meeting place, or door-to-door delivery service, post offices become much more of a hub in rural communities than any other kind of place. While people anywhere differ in culture, religion, or class, everyone in American society needs a postal address. Without a postal address, for example, one cannot receive electricity, mortgage, or telephone bills--which are essential to living in adequate housing conditions. And although social clubs--like Elks and Kiwanis-- or churches provide a strong cultural center to many rural communities, they are far from universally attended or accepting of all people.
Susan Allen, 51, is postmaster in Woodland, Ill., population 301. She slides mail into 150 boxes, listens as patrons talk about their problems, tragedies and joys, weighs the occasional infant on her mail scale and stocks a mailbox-shaped dish with candy.
Generally, we need to check our mail at least several times a week. Without a post office in one's community, one must resort to traveling farther and farther away in order to have access to this necessary element. Given difficulties faced by rural people in obtaining affordable, convenient transportation, the loss of a post office within a community becomes much more of a real tragedy than even most reading about it in USA Today can imagine.

Comments on the article magnify the issue even more. In this economy, people are much more concerned with the bottom line than about rural communities' wellbeing. Commenter jreppoh, for example, writes
We have a small post office and I live close enought[(sic)] to it to know how not very busy they are. Point is it has been in this small town for many years so why did the postal service build another one 4 miles into the very very small town next to ours that never had one. ... Put the money into giving more people the internet,that is a win win. ...
Will bringing broadband internet into rural communities solve the USPS funding disparities while still providing adequate postal service? Or will the loss of a community hub further break down rural communities into places where the poor get poorer and the rich get richer?


Jen Wickens said...

This post brings to mind the history of the post office in the United States. Article I, Section 8, Clause 7 of the United States Constitution, known as the Postal Clause or the Postal Power, empowers Congress "To establish Post Offices and post Roads." However, the post office was intimately tied to the spoils system - where jobs were doled out based on political patronage. I'd argue that getting a post office was analogous to today's highway off-ramp. It connected the people of a place with the rest of the country.

While politicians now seek appointments to key committees that can impact their home districts, when the US Postal Service was at its zenith, postmaster general positions were some of the most sought-after positions within the federal government.

The fact that the U.S. Postal Service is closing down post offices says much about the government's prioritization of rural people and places.

lauren said...

Interesting post, Caitlin. It made me think about the small post offices, which were more like wooden sheds, in Japan. The town I lived in had one on the side of the road, operated by a really kind and helpful woman, who knew you after you had been there just once or twice. It definitely created a sense of community. Unfortunately during the time I was living there, towns and villages were being merged into larger cities due to financial incentives from the Japanese government. As a result,the existence of these small post offices were threatened and many of the same concerns you raise were being discussed.

Chez Marta said...

These sad news reminded me of the slow but inevitable deterioration of the social network that occurs in the cartoon Cars after the freeway reaches their community. Previously, travelers had to stop by on the winding scenic Route 66, but now, they merely pass by on the straight-as-arrow freeway at 65+ miles per hour. There is no time to stop, smell the coffee in a roadside diner, spend some time (and money) with the locals, participate in the exchange of goods and conversations. Similarly, broadband access may provide the unintended effect of actually depriving rural communities of access to other ways of connecting. The more people use the internet, the less they need the post office, and the less they need to travel to town to do their shopping, chatting, organizing. The fabric of society will be maintained virtually, and all slower methods of communicaiton may suffer and even go extinct. Telegrams, telefax, telex or teleprinter, heck, even conventional land-line telephone, will become artifacts of the not-too-distant past.