Rural Arkansans Bring National Attention to Post Office Closures

Last Updated: January 27, 2012

This article appeared in the January 2012 Rural Policy Matters.

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Kudos to the Rural Community Alliance (RCA), whose efforts to fight post office closings in Arkansas have helped bring a rural perspective and national attention to an issue facing thousands of rural communities across the country.

In July, the United States Postal Service (USPS) revealed a list of 3,700 post offices under “study” for closure by the end of 2011. Another 700 post offices were already on a closure review list. A significant percentage of these 4,400 post offices are in rural communities across the country, and rural residents have been fighting back with petitions, community meetings, and appeals to their Congressional representatives.

RCA, a statewide organization that “serves Arkansas by helping its members become advocates for their rural school and community and uniting their voices on state-wide initiatives,” has been leading those efforts in Arkansas. RCA has a strong track record working with communities on a variety of efforts including community revitalization, youth empowerment and support for rural schools and students, and public policy issues. Responding to the threat to rural post offices was a natural fit.

“The post office is the fixture that binds a rural community together,” says RCA Director Renee Carr. “Its importance to a community is probably second only to the local school. We’ve always viewed the local post office as a permanent fixture and to be told it will be taken from us has caused rural people to stand up and fight for what has been theirs, in most cases, for a century or longer.”

Carr lives in the Ozark community of Fox, which is one of the 179 Arkansas communities on the closure study list. About a third of the state’s post offices, a larger percentage than any other state, are on the list.

In response to this statewide threat, RCA joined forces with retired postmasters across Arkansas to collect and distribute essential information. RCA members and postmasters have worked together to volunteer time and expertise to help communities get organized to keep their post offices open and prepared to meet with USPS officials.

RCA also started the website Save Our Rural Arkansas Post Offices. Several RCA members have posted videos about their communities that explain why the local post office is essential. You can watch some of these videos here, here, and here. (You can find other videos from around the country by searching “rural post office closings” on YouTube.)

RCA’s work with communities fighting to keep their local post offices attracted the attention of the Marguerite Casey Foundation, which featured RCA’s post office work in two stories on its news site, Equal Voice. You can read those stories here and here. And, earlier this month the New York Times ran a story  on proposed post office closings that featured the Arkansas work and interviews with a number of rural Arkansans, including Carr.

Public outcry, especially from rural areas, has gotten the attention of many members of Congress. Late last year, a bi-partisan group of senators signed a letter calling for a moratorium on the closings. In December, the USPS announced that it would postpone the closures until May 15, with this explanation: “The Postal Service hopes this period will help facilitate the enactment of comprehensive postal legislation.”

The announcement also says the USPS will continue “all necessary steps required for the review of these facilities.”

A Departure from the Postal Service’s Congressional Mandate?

The proposed post offices closings are part of a plan announced by the USPS to cut $20 billion in operating expenses by 2015. USPS says the post office closures would reduce costs by a billion dollars. Other proposed cuts include eliminating some 250 mail-processing centers, doing away with next-day delivery and Saturday service, and laying off as many as 120,000 postal workers.

The USPS, which receives no tax support, says drastic cuts are necessary to save the postal service from bankruptcy and make up for the dramatic drop in first-class mail volume brought about by email, online bill pay, and other internet-based exchanges. First class mail is the Postal Service’s primary source of income.

Many critics of the USPS plan acknowledge that the decline in first class mail has affected income but question below-cost rates for junk mail and point to the 2006 Postal Reorganization Act as the biggest drain on Postal Service finances. That law requires the USPS to pre-pay about 75 years’ worth of pension and health care benefits. No other public or private agency faces such a mandate.

Doubts about savings from post office closings have also emerged. Testimony in a Postal Regulatory Commission Report (Docket No. N2011-1) suggests that savings would be about $200 million. Materials produced by the National League of Postmasters point out that if virtually all rural post offices were closed the savings would less than 1% of the total USPS budget.

Further, critics charge that closing rural post offices violates the universal service provision of the 1970 Postal Reorganization Act. Section 101 specifically applies to rural communities and prohibits closing a post office for financial reasons alone. “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.”

Rural Impact

The problems for rural communities that would result from massive post office closures are compounded by the failure of public policy to ensure broadband access and cell phone coverage for all communities, leaving a large percentage of the nation’s rural communities unserviced by either.

Carr explains: “Although rural residents are making strides toward using technology, particularly in running businesses and internet-based ventures in very sparsely populated areas, we are still hampered by slow internet and dead zones in local cell phone service. This makes us rely more on the local post office than our urban counterparts.”

For a large portion of rural people, a nearby physical post office is the only way to pay bills, send and receive packages – including necessary medications, and purchase money orders.

The U.S. Constitution recognizes the need to provide all Americans, no matter where they live, with opportunities to participate in democracy as specifically recognizes postal services as essential for providing those opportunities. Until there are workable alternatives in all rural communities, brick and mortar post offices must fulfill this Constitutional mandate. This is a message Congress needs to hear.

Read more:

Equal Voice articles:

New York Times article featuring RCA work:

USPS announcement postponing closures:

Other coverage of proposed Postal Service cuts:

U.S. Postal Regulatory Commission report including testimony on closure proposals:

National League of Postmasters Talking Points on Closing Rural Post Offices:

Prior RPM coverage of the issue:

Read more from the January 2012 Rural Policy Matters.