Proposed Post Office Closures Fall Hard on Rural Communities

Last Updated: August 25, 2011

This article appeared in the August 2011 Rural Policy Matters.

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In July, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) announced that some 3,700 post offices are under “study” for closure. Most of the targeted post offices are in rural communities and low-income urban neighborhoods. An additional 729, mostly rural, post offices were already under closure review. Ultimately half of the nation’s 32,000 post offices could be closed, according to several reports.

The July 26th announcement does not reveal the criteria by which post office closures will be determined. Rather, it explains that the 3,700 post offices are being considered as part of the Postal Service’s Retail Access Optimization Initiative (RAOI).

The RAOI provides certain postal services through other businesses like grocery and big box office supply stores. There are currently about 70,000 “third-party” retailers. USPS calls RAOI “expanded access,” but its own website acknowledges that the majority of these third-party retailers only sell stamps.

The USPS announcement introduces the “Village Post Office” as a “potential replacement option” for communities where post offices are closed. “Village Post Offices would be operated by local businesses, such as pharmacies, grocery stores and other appropriate retailers, and would offer popular postal products and services such as stamps and flat-rate packaging.”

For the majority of rural communities that have no grocery store, pharmacy, or other local business able to provide postal services, RAOI “expanded access” is, in reality, no access at all.

Which post offices are targeted?

Most of the post offices under consideration for closure are located in rural communities and low-income urban neighborhoods, exactly the kinds of communities the United States Post Office was set up to serve. A number of targeted post offices are historic, including many “New Deal” structures built to get Americans working again during the Great Depression.

You can see maps of all post offices targeted for closure, including non-RAOI closures, here. (Note: you may need to zoom out from the map to find your state and then zoom back in to find specific post offices.)

The USPS website that provides a state-by-state listing of the post offices under consideration for RAOI is available here. It’s called the “Expanded Access study list,” but it’s actually a list of communities where post office closures are under consideration.

The list of 729 post offices already under study for closure (non-RAOI) is available on the Postal Regulatory Commission’s website. Click on List of Retail Facilities Outside the Scope of the RAO Initiative Filed in N2011-1 in the “What’s New?” column on the left side of the webpage.

A basic right at risk

In framing the U.S. Constitution, the founders recognized postal services as essential to the nation and listed post offices among the Powers Granted to Congress. Until 1970, the Post Office was a cabinet level Department.

In 1970, the Postal Reorganization Act restructured the post office as the United States Postal Service and stripped its standing as a Department. The reorganization law, nevertheless, reiterated the necessity of the post office “to bind together the Nation” and mandated an obligation to provide services to all communities.

Section 101 of the law specifically applies this universal service commitment to rural communities: “The Postal Service shall provide a maximum degree of effective and regular postal services 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.”

Things changed more dramatically in 2006 with the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act. That law, often cited as an attempt to break the post office “monopoly” (a term usually reserved for corporate enterprises), required the postal service to prepay health and pension benefits for postal employees.

Although the law currently requires a reason other than operational expenses to close a post office, much of the justification for RAOI is financial. The post office, which receives no taxpayer funding, is operating at a deficit. Many in the media as well as representatives of the USPS suggest that competition from for-profit carriers and electronic mechanisms like email and online banking are the primary cause of the post office’s financial situation. Yet a number of critics of the proposed closures note that the pension prepayment requirements are a little-known but significant factor.

Postal services could be curtailed even more dramatically in the future. In 2011, several bills were presented in Congress that would remove from law language prohibiting the closure of post offices for financial reasons.

Rural considerations

The idea of universal service recognizes that the participation of all people and all communities is necessary to a vibrant society and functioning democracy. It also recognizes that the costs of providing the basic services that enable participation are not the same in all places. In much the same way a shared-risk insurance pool spreads the costs of insurance among all members, universal service provisions in basic utilities like phone, electricity, and mail share the costs among all users. The post office remains today, as it has always been, an essential mechanism of democratic and economic participation and opportunity.

At a practical level, many rural communities have no local business able to provide even the limited services of a “Village Post Office.” That means whatever postal services are offered elsewhere, often dozens of miles away, will be out of reach of many local residents.

Further, the U. S. Post Office offers many essential services not available in retail outlets or the proposed Village Post Offices. For example, a post office provides users with a post office box, the only secure place that many residents can receive private correspondence, checks, packages, and medications — essential in communities without pharmacies. A post office also offers money orders and thus provides many low-income and elderly residents an essential financial service.

For many small rural businesses the drop-off and delivery services of a nearby post office are a necessary component of their ability to operate and make a profit.

Finally, the absence of broadband internet access in many rural communities makes the local post office the only reliable means available to local residents — regardless of age, income, or computer literacy — for taking care of their affairs.  

At a symbolic level, the post office is often the only remaining public institution in rural communities, the last bit of evidence that the community is recognized and valued by the government that represents it. When a post office is closed, residents lose a gathering place, a zip code, an official acknowledgement of their place, even their community’s name.

Post office closures threaten the viability of communities and offload the costs of a shared public enterprise onto local users, excluding individuals who can’t “pay.” The proposed closure of so many post offices represents a significant departure from a long-held American commitment to universal service in the public sphere.

Read more:

This story in the blog, “Daily Yonder,” provides first-hand insight and experience of a rural New Mexico resident whose post office was closed:

This story explains much of the background on the post office’s current situation and features the experience of residents of a remote southeastern Kentucky community when the local post office was closed:

This story provides general overview:

A state-by-state listing of proposed RAOI closings:

The Postal Regulatory Commission where you can find a listing of post offices under consideration for non-RAOI closure, proposed changes to post office closing appeals, and other information:

A map of proposed post office closings:

A website with extensive information on post office closings:

Read more from the August 2011 Rural Policy Matters.