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Following national outrage over the removal of mail sorting machines and public mailboxes, the elimination of overtime for letter carriers, and other cost cutting measures that could severely delay the distribution of mail, U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy backtracked, indicating that all operational changes would be suspended until after the presidential election – at which point he will presumably continue his efforts to dismantle the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). If he succeeds, the consequences could be catastrophic for all Americans, particularly those who live in rural areas.
To be sure, rural voters were cautiously relieved by the news, as it will protect their ability to participate in the democratic process. Many rural communities are too remote and too sparsely populated to support their own polling places, giving residents the choice to either drive significant distances to the nearest voting site or submit a mail-in ballot. For people who are disabled, don’t own a car, or can’t take hours off of work to drive to the polls, in-person voting may be especially challenging. And in the midst of the pandemic, mail-in ballots may be the safest option for elderly and immunocompromised individuals – both of whom are more likely to live in rural areas – to exercise their right to vote.
But what about after the election? Rural communities rely on USPS for far more than just sending in ballots. While their urban counterparts have moved online to communicate, conduct business, pay bills, and cash paychecks, rural Americans haven’t been as quick to digitize their daily activities. This lag isn’t by choice; indeed, it can largely be attributed to the fact that 35% of rural residents still don’t have access to broadband, compared to just 3% of urban residents.
That means there are 20 million rural Americans who have to do everything in person or by mail – and the former is often easier said than done. One notable example is the process of picking up prescription medication; between 2013 and 2018, 16 percent of independent rural pharmacies went out of business, leaving 630 communities with no pharmacy at all. Private services like UPS or FedEx rarely offer a good alternative, as neither delivers to all rural areas and when they do, they often impose a steep surcharge. Consequently, USPS is frequently the only affordable and convenient way to receive medication in rural areas – and the inevitable disruptions or delays caused by DeJoy’s policies could literally mean the difference between life or death.
Family farmers face similar problems when buying inputs and tools, which may not be sold at nearby stores. Like many rural Americans, Wisconsin Farmers Union board member and dairy farmer Linda Ceylor lives in an area that isn’t covered by private carriers. For her, the Postal Service is the quickest way to get access to goods that aren’t immediately available in her community. “If it wasn’t for USPS, I would have to drive an hour and a half each way to pick up packages from the closest point private carriers will deliver,” she said. “As a farmer, I can’t take three hours out of my day each time I need to pick up a package.”
In addition to seeds fertilizer, pesticides, and other essential products, farmers often receive live animals like chicks and bees in the mail. If deliveries are postponed by just a day, the results can be tragic, not to mention costly. Oregon beekeeper and educator Sarah Red-Laird knows this from personal experience. “Queen bees can’t get stuck in the mail or they’ll die,” according to Red-Laird, who also serves as president of Northwest Farmers Union. Beekeepers depend on the mail to overnight queen bees to farmers for pollination season, purchase colonies and supplies, and send honey to customers. “I’ve been hearing that USPS is a relic of a bygone era because nobody gets mail anymore, but that couldn’t be further from the truth when it comes to agriculture,” she noted. “The Postal Service is what keeps small beekeeping operations like mine afloat.”
It isn’t just farmers whose livelihoods hinge on USPS; without it, all rural business owners may face obstacles when carrying out basic transactions. Fourteen percent of rural bank branches shuttered between 2012 and 2017, which has stranded about one in four nonmetropolitan counties without any in-person banking options.
While we should certainly be preserving USPS in the short term for the sake of the upcoming election, we should also be doing everything we can to uphold this vital agency in the long-term, both for future elections as well as for the many other services it provides. A good place to start is restoring all mailboxes and sorting machines and reinstating overtime pay for postal workers so they can deliver mail on time. From there, we should prevent hefty increases in postage rates that could make mail delivery prohibitively expensive for lower income Americans. Finally, Congress should ensure ample funding for the agency’s operations in perpetuity.
The Postal Service belongs to the American people, and we must protect it from the real and imminent threat of DeJoy’s approach. Our rural communities – and our democracy – depend on it.
Rob Larew is president of the National Farmers Union.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misidentified Rob Larew in his photograph. We’re sorry about the error.