Friday, September 2, 2011

Post offices, politics, and rural access

In a report on rural broadband for one of my externships, I wrote about earlier attempts to extend service and access to modern technology to rural America: universal telephone service, rural electrification, the trans-continental railroad, and--the earliest example--the U.S. Postal Service. Earlier this year, the Postal Service announced that it is considering closing nearly four thousand post offices around the country, most of which are in rural or remote areas. Presented as a money-saving measure for the cash-strapped Postal Service, the plan would close post offices in 49 states and the District of Columbia. In a statement reproduced in this NPR blog post, Postmaster General Patrick Donohoe argued that
Our customer's habits have made it clear that they no longer require a physical post office to conduct most of their postal business.
Instead, Donohoe states, these communities may get stamps and flat rate boxes from a local vendor or automated "Village Post Office." Because the proposal targets offices with low service numbers, states with large rural and remote populations would be particularly hard hit. Although over 150 post offices in New York might close, they represent only 9% of their total. On the other hand, 35% of Arkansas', 29% each of Montana's and South Dakota's, and 28% each of West Virginia's and Wyoming's post offices would close.

In communities with already limited resources and sometimes inadequate or nonexistent advanced telecommunications, the proposed closures have already stirred up debate about issues of fairness, service, and access. In a blog post on the Daily Yonder, community organizer Carol Miller attempted to rally rural communities to fight the proposal:
My advice to every community on the closure list is to fight back - do whatever it takes to keep this constitutionally guaranteed service in your community.
It appears that rural communities have heard this call; a quick Google search about rural post office closures brings up articles, blog posts, letters to the editor, and whole websites dedicated to supporting rural post offices and preventing their closure. Many of these sources point to post offices as a community staple, a gathering place, and a lifeline to the outside world. Cutting off this access, they argue, would be a particular hardship for rural communities.

Almost immediately, politicians from across the country and across the political spectrum stepped into the fray. Maine's Senator Susan Collins, who is the ranking Republicans on the committee that oversees postal matters, issued the following statement:
The fact is, maintaining our nation's rural post offices costs the Postal Service less than one percent of its total budget and is not the cause of its financial crisis. While there are some areas where postal services could be consolidated or moved into a nearby retail store to ensure continued access, this simply is not an option in many rural and remote areas.
Representative Nick Rahall, a Democratic Congressman from West Virginia, submitted a blog post to the Hill's Congress Blog arguing that although the Postal Service has valid financial concerns, there are other factors to be considered in closing a post office, namely access. According to Rahall, in some rural areas the USPS delivers their competitors' packages because they are the only organization with an adequate delivery infrastructure.

Montana's Representative Denny Rehberg started the "Mail Drop Montana Initiative" in an attempt to protect the 80 Montana post offices proposed for closure. In an attempt to avoid post office closures, several Members of Congress have introduced bills to make other changes to the Postal Service, including proposals to go to a five-day delivery schedule.

The Postal Service is in real financial trouble, and it is clear that in one way or another, service will be cut. It also seems clear, however, that service cuts could have a larger impact on rural communities than on urban populations. Until our infrastructure for advanced technology (or competing mail delivery systems) is adequately serving rural areas, I would hope that Congress and the Postal Service would attempt to lessen the blow to rural areas.

For more information on this topic, see earlier blog posts here and here.


KB said...
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KB said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Scarecrow said...

Rural post offices don't just bring the community together, they also help define them. There was talk of closing the post office in Alleghany, Oregon while I was still at The World newspaper. Someone wrote a letter to the editor in strong opposition to the idea, suggesting Alleghany would cease to exist without the post office. I think there is a sense of legitimacy that comes with a post office; that the federal government considers your community important enough to be included.

KB said...

I remember hearing about this and initially feeling nervous that my own small town would lose its post office. Thankfully, my hometown is not on the list. However, if that were the case, it would be a hardship on much of the population. People would have to travel at least a half an hour to get stamps, mail an important document, or check a PO box. This would not only be a hardship in terms of time, but also money for travel. A post office closure in my current town of Davis may be inconvenient because I have to drive a few more minutes. A post office closure in places even more rural than my hometown, like many small communities in Montana, would require residents to travel at least 20 miles if not much more to reach a post office. In many rural areas public transportation is non-existent. For those who cannot travel due to financial situations or physical restrictions, communication with the outside world will be severely restricted with some of these post office closures. I think the post office should look to other means of saving money rather than cut services to communities that need them.