Saturday, October 8, 2011

Nostalgia, economics, and spatiality in reporting on post office closures

Legal Ruralism has featured a lot of posts recently about the proposed plan to close 3,700 post offices, most of them in rural areas. You can read some here and here. Now, recent issues of my two "favorite" news sources, the New York Times and the Newton County Times, both feature stories about the proposed closures. I'll write about what the Newton County Times teaches in a subsequent post, but the ostensible angle in the New York Times story is how post offices serve as more than places to do postal businesses--they are community hubs. The headline is "Where Post Office is the Town's Heart, Fears of Closing." (The alternative headline the NYT is using is "In Rural America, Fears that Beloved Post Offices Will Close"). Of course, we've talked about this community hub theme in class and in recent posts. We've also talked about the impact of post office closures on the elderly, which this story also notes.

But what appears at first blush to be a story focused on rural community turns out to feature a business angle--or at least an economic one. Indeed, in the print edition, the story appears on the first page of the business section, for which journalist Steven Greenhouse regularly writes. Greenhouse focuses on several tiny communities in Ohio and depicts them sympathetically, with a good dose of nostalgia. The story's dateline is Neville, Ohio, population 109, and Greenhouse opens with a folksy, small town vignette:
While checking for mail on her daily visit, Susan Reid regaled the town postmaster with news of the wonderful swimming lessons enjoyed by her two home-schooled children. Suddenly, her 9-year-old son began tumbling around, ever so playfully, on the floor, as if he were at home.

* * *
Meanwhile, the door of the white clapboard building opened and in walked Norma Bowling, a retired nurse’s aide, carrying a plastic bag. “Here are the bell peppers I promised you,” she said, handing the gift to Ms. Blackburn [the Neville postmaster].
Greenhouse subsequently quotes Bowling regarding her reliance on the post office:
I just wish that they would leave our post office alone. If I couldn’t come here to get my mail every morning, I’d feel a big part of me has died.
A patron of another nearby post office, a marketing representative who goes to the post office a couple of times day to mail proposals to prospective clients, comments, “You’re throwing the little people, the rural people, under the bus."

But wait, as I read these quotes again, I wonder if Greenhouse's depiction is sympathetic, or whether it is actually more patronizing?

In any event, if you read between the lines, it seems Greenhouse is making a hard-edged business point : Isn't it a waste of money for the Neville post office to remain open--given that another post office, the one in Moscow, population 240, is just four miles or so down the road? He notes that proposed closings at nearby Higginsport (population 227) and Chilo (population 82) will similarly channel postal patrons to Moscow. Greenhouse quotes a U.S. Postal Service spokesperson, Susan Brennan, who makes a similar point:
Regarding rural America, the fact is that our network of post offices was established decades ago to serve populations that in many, many cases moved on years ago. The residents in these communities already go to neighboring towns to shop for food, go to the drugstore, purchase gas, go to the bank — they can take care of their postal needs there.
Greenhouse, with Brennan's help, makes a fair point. Communities do dry up (even if they don't quite blow away) and the fact that Neville has had a post office since 1816 does not necessarily mean that it still needs one. I documented this in a post from earlier this year, about the fact that my home county, the population of which has never exceeded 10,000, has been home to some 50 posts offices--though not all at the same time, mind you--over the years. In fact, when you look at all of the Newton County post office closures and openings over the years, the U.S. Postal Service looks downright agile.

In any event I think it's important to note that Greenhouse would not have been able to write quite the same story if he had used examples from the West, as opposed to more densely populated Ohio. That is, I doubt that any post offices exist in rural Montana, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, or on the western slope in Colorado that are within four miles of another post office! Four miles doesn't seem far, I admit. But when I was driving through parts of rural Montana and Idaho this summer, I certainly didn't see any post offices within four miles of one another. Indeed, I was surprised to see post offices seemingly in the proverbial middle of nowhere. These included a post office next to a convenience store in North Fork, Idaho, not even a Census Designated Place, near the base of Lost Trail Pass, and one in Clayton, Idaho, also not a Census Designated Place but which Wikipedia tells me has a population of 7. Yes, that's right, 7! But these two post offices serve big chunks of Lemhi County and Custer County respectively, which seems to me to change the calculus. Lemhi County has a population of 7,936 and a population density of just 1.7 persons per square mile. Its biggest population cluster is Salmon, with a population of 3,130. Custer County has a population of just 4,368 and a population density of just under one person per square mile; its largest population cluster is Challis, population 909. Only a handful of post offices serve the residents of these remote counties, and people literally come out of the woodwork (well, literally, the mountains) to use these facilities. In other words, it's not only the seven residents of Clayton who use the U.S. Post office there. Of greater use to more citizens (mostly tourists!) than the North Fork and Clayton post offices are the equally isolated post offices in Glacier National Park (at Lake MacDonald Lodge), pictured top, and the one in the summer tourist mecca of Stanley, Idaho, population 47. (Why, I wonder in retrospect, did I take photos of these and not the more distinctive post offices in the more remote, more truly "local" and rural locales of North Fork and Clayton?)

The thing that's easily overlooked, of course--and this seems to be the case with Greenhouse--is that while many post offices seem to serve a place with little or no population cluster, they are actually serving many more residents than live in the incorporated or unincorporated area where the post office is located. That is, they serve people who drive in from the surrounding county (or counties) to do their postal business. In the case of Neville, Chilo, Higginsport and Moscow, Ohio, that broader area means at least some parts of Clermont County, which is included in the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Metropolitan Area. In short, it's not clear from Greenhouse's story how many residents of the area are served by these small post offices since the references to the small towns at risk of losing their posts offices suggest just a few hundred people. Whatever the answer to that question, it's not one being asked by journalists like Steven Greenhouse, who may not realize that the loss of which he writes affects more than the 109 residents of Neville. Just as importantly, post office closures in the rural west may not implicate services for many people, but I daresay that the distances residents must cover to reach an alternative post office if the closest one closes are never as little as four miles.


Azar said...

From a purely economic standpoint, it would seem helpful to collect and analyze data as to the actual amount of activity in a given post office rather than simply the amount of people living in the community that the post office surrounds. I would be much more forgiving of a decision to close a post office (even if it is a "social hub") if it wasn't handling very many letters or packages and there were other close alternatives for its customers.

Scarecrow said...

My wife's paternal grandparents summer in Pitkin, Colorado, population 127. They support the local post office by paying for a box, even though they only spend three months of the year there. They also make weekly trips into Gunnison to do their laundry, pick up groceries and a newspaper. It's a 27 mile trip, but I'd say most, if not all, Pitkin residents make it on a fairly routine basis. It's certainly nice to be able to check your mail every day, but it seems like Pitkin residents would make do with getting their mail in Gunnison.

Patricija said...

The following article shows the flight of the rural community of Emery, Utah who is about to lost their post office -

They indicated that the post office makes most of its revenue from first class mail and "[e]very time [they] lose one piece of first class mail ... [they] have to generate five new pieces of advertising mail to offset that cost."

Post offices such as this received a questionnaires this summer, which not only explained the current legal and business process as well as gathered information.

The article seemed to intimate that Emery will likely lose their post office. But some of their solutions for towns like Emery are the following:

1. Discontinue retail services (minimum negative impact)
2. Take the box in the town and put it in another town 14 miles away (approx. 30 miles roundtrip) - - (benefit is that the only thing that changes is the location)
3. Set up a village post office in either a business in the community or one of the community services. That community service could apply for a village post office.
4. Street delivery in a group of cluster boxes installed in a location most convenience for the community.

An interesting quote in the article is that "closing Post Offices on Saturday you would save $2 billion, whereas if you close 3,652 Post Offices you save 26 million." If that is true, it seems that completely closing rural post offices is not only cruel to those communities but also not necessarily the best economic option.