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Here we go again! The media noticed a plan to close a lot of post offices, most of them in frontier and rural communities. This resulted in a one-day national news story. Then everyone – except the people affected – forgot about it and went on their way.
Rural people want to know how come whenever someone decides it’s time to cut federal spending that rural post offices are always first, or nearly first, to go.
The first time I ran into this was in February 1986; Enchantment, the monthly paper of the New Mexico Rural Electric Cooperative Association, ran an article entitled “The Post Office’s anti-rural crusade” with a cartoon showing the burial of village post offices. At that time, twenty-five years ago, the federal plan was to close 12,000 small post offices. Appealing to patriotism, the article reminded Congress that “there is a flag that bravely flies out front. Its presence constitutes red-white-and-blue proof that the town still exists.”
The hero of that era was Jennings Randolph, then U.S. Senator from West Virginia. In a warning just as appropriate today, Randolph pointed out, “When the post office is closed, the flag comes down. When the human side of government closes its doors, we’re all in trouble.”
Despite passionate defenders, a lot of communities lost their post offices in that round of closures.
Suddenly it was 1994 and a new wave of rural post office closures began. This time my home community, Ojo Sarco, New Mexico 87550, was threatened with being literally wiped off the map.
No community has ever accepted a post office closure quietly. Residents fight back, appeal to the postal service, ask their Congressional representatives for help, go to meetings and hearings and sign petitions. Some communities win and keep a post office. Many more communities lose.
My community did all of the above – but we lost and the post office closed in 1995. At the final local meeting, arranged by Senator Jeff Bingaman, the representative of the Regional Postal Service in Denver let our community know that we were not going to be saved. We were informed that our post office “cost” the USPS $1,500 a year more than it made in sales of stamps and money orders. That was too big a federal investment for our small, isolated community.
The United States has gone from proudly providing Rural Free Delivery (RFD) to the privatized Highway Contract Route (HCR) cluster box system. At our cluster boxes, depending on the season, we wade through water, mud, and snow, and try not to slip on the ice to get our mail. The boxes are not accessible to people with mobility disabilities, meaning they cannot retrieve their own mail. They must either have someone else get their mail or buy a post office box and travel to the closest real post office.
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.
The U.S. Post Office predates the Declaration of Independence
The United States postal system was created by the Second Continental Congress, which met in 1775, a year before the Declaration of Independence. Benjamin Franklin was appointed to be the first Postmaster General. Franklin adopted B. Free Franklin, Postmaster for his official signature as shown on this commemorative stamp from 2006.
The founders of the nation recognized that a strong communication system was essential to weave far-flung places into a nation. By emphasizing service, this new postal system was also a way to prove that the new country was throwing off the ways of the Crown. Before the American Revolution the British system required postal services to be profitable. The leaders of the new nation-in-formation rejected profit in the provision of such a basic service.
George Washington attributed the victory in the Revolutionary War to mail delivery and its importance in linking “the distant parts of the country by a due attention to the Post Office and Post Roads.”
When the U.S. Constitution was written and ratified, post offices were in the enumeration of Powers Granted to Congress (Article 1. Section 8.g.). As the country grew so did the Post Office Department. It helped ease the hardships of settlement and rural life by tying small communities into the nation. How far away and dreamlike those days feel today.
Fast Forward 200 years to the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970
Forgetting the revolutionary intention of the Founding Fathers to provide essential services without requiring them to make a profit; the Post Office hit the chopping block in 1970 when President Richard Nixon signed the Postal Reorganization Act. This law demoted the Post Office Department from a cabinet level position and turned it into the United States Postal Service with a corporate organizational structure.
Even with the reorganization of the Post Office, Congress still supported the idea of universal service. Section 101 of the law states “The Postal Service shall have as its basic function the obligation to provide postal services to bind the Nation together through the personal, educational, literary, and business correspondence of the people. It shall provide prompt, reliable, and efficient services to patrons in all areas and shall render postal services to all communities.”
This same section states “The Postal Service shall provide a maximum degree of effective and regular postal service to rural areas, communities, and small towns where post offices are not self-sustaining. No small post office shall be closed solely for operating at a deficit, it being the specific intent of the Congress that effective postal services be insured to residents of both urban and rural communities” (emphasis added).
The Postal Service has found several ways to work around these statutory provisions over the years. Currently in Congress, there are a number of bills that would eliminate completely these few remaining provisions that offer shreds of protection to communities.
In 1997, Congress asked the General Accounting Office (now named the Governmental Accountability Office) to report on post office closures resulting from the 1970 law. That report found that between 1970 and 1996, there were 3,924 closures. All of these were rural and few were full time.
The affected communities had:
• Populations ranging from 30 to 2,143, with an average population of 206 (median population of 80).
• Businesses ranging in number from 1 to 39, with an average and median of 6 and 5.
• 10 to 44 hours of window service per week, with a weekly average of 28 hours.
• Postmaster salaries ranged from $5,773 to $31,664 per year, yearly average = $13,664.
• In all but four of these communities, the annual operating costs of these post offices exceeded their postal revenues.
In 1995, ninety-three post offices were closed and they were 100% rural.
The Fatal Blow: PL109-435 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006
This law was designed to end what it described as “the postal monopoly.” The primary weapon was a remarkable change in the funding of postal service employee benefits – a disastrous mandate that required $5 billion per year be deposited into an escrow account to prepay health and pension benefits.
Many media outlets have reported on the link between these payments and the present economic condition of the USPS.
In 2011, Senator Thomas Carper, the Senate subcommittee chair on the post office, told National Public Radio that these pension prepayments are a major cause of the Postal Service’s red ink. Carper said, “We shouldn’t ask the Postal Service what we ask of no other state and local government and, as far as I know, no other business enterprise to do – and that is to upfront set aside enormous amounts of money to meet health care needs of potential pensioners.”
The Postal Service has not gone broke. What we are witnessing is a fatal
blow by Congress to the financial health of USPS via a mandate that all
future pensions must be prepaid.
Yet Carper also is a sponsor of one of the bills currently in Congress that will, for the first time, officially let the postal service close post offices for economic reasons. The Wall Street Journal reports that a bill introduced by Carper would repeal wording in U.S. law that says, “no small post office shall be closed solely for operating at a deficit.” Currently, the postal service must cite other reasons – in addition to finances – such as unsafe conditions or a retiring postmaster.
Back to the Future – 2011
Here we are, back to a new and very extensive round of post office closures. The two thousand at the top of the closure list are primarily rural and frontier. (Find the state-by-state closure list here.)Yet the ultimate closure list might reach half of all post offices, as many as 16,000 within a year. This attack on the oldest public service of our democracy is now a shared rural and urban disaster.
There are health care impacts to rural post office closures. Rural pharmacies are even more rare than post offices and many people receive mail-order drugs. Many medications are supposed to be kept at room temperature, not subjected to the extremes of summer heat and winter cold as they are in highway cluster boxes.
The Wall Street Journal described one example from North Dakota.
“The area’s only major hospital and pharmacy is in Hettinger, ND, 40 miles away and over the state line from Prairie City. Before, when an elderly person or farmer in Prairie City quickly needed an antibiotic or other medication, a pharmacist in Hettinger would rush prescriptions to the Hettinger post office, catching the mail carrier who each day traveled from Hettinger to the Prairie City post office. … now Prairie City mail is sorted and delivered on a rural route out of Bison, SD, delaying the delivery of medicine from Hettinger by two or three days, says Dr. Brian Willoughby, of West River Health Services in Hettinger.
“‘When 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.’”
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.
We tried and failed. Our postal services were moved into another county. That makes things like registering to vote interesting. Some neighbors have received letters from the Rio Arriba county clerk (where we live) telling them to register in Taos County where their mailing address lives.
Zip coded databases also move us into another county, which makes for confusing disaggregation when we apply for grants and programs to help our community, or when we’re sent letters and packages through the corporate competitors to the public mail service.
The corporate competitive model for mail and package delivery makes no sense, not economically or environmentally. In the days of a strong Post Office system, one truck made the drive to deliver the mail and packages in my community. Now we pass trucks, not only from our US Postal Service contract driver, but also from UPS, Fed-Ex, and recently also DHL, all driving the same road at the same time every day.
Multiple systems might make some sense in urban areas, but it makes no sense in rural and frontier areas. It is wasteful to drive four trucks to do what the post office used to do — and what a revitalized post office could do for our area both more efficiently and for lower cost with one publicly funded truck and driver.
We have a great Postmistress at 87521. We were on pins and needles worrying that our 1995 replacement post office, one county over, would be on the new list of closures. We survived this round, but no one knows the future. There appears to be no distance that urbanites feel is too long to drive for postal services. Our current drive is “only” a 22 mile round trip; not bad most of the year but it can take close to an hour in the winter. For Prairie City, South Dakota, a town of many elders, it is an 80 mile round trip to the post office.
Post office closure paired with school closure and consolidation are extinguishing frontier and rural communities. They are daily reminders that we are being cut out of the mainstream. These are reversals of the nation’s earliest commitments to mail service and accessible public education.
Rural America is not dying. It is being killed by bad policy decisions.
Carol Miller is a community organizer from Ojo Sarco, New Mexico (pop. 400) and an advocate for Geographic Democracy: the belief that the United States must guarantee equal rights and opportunities to participate in the national life, no matter where someone lives.