Sara Millhouse

Three years ago, under challenging markets and Congressional constraints, the U.S. Postal Service closed hundreds of rural post offices, such as Earlville, and threatened to close thousands more. 

If it were a tactic to gauge the importance of these small-town institutions, it worked. I attended a meeting in Zwingle where I thought the U.S.P.S. employee talking to residents might burst into tears, and some residents responded with anger. Many of the communities where brick-and-mortar offices were slated for closure had already seen schools and churches close. Taking away the town post office seemed like taking away the last thing that made it a town.

Eventually, the U.S.P.S. drew back from the brink, cutting staff and hours at many rural post offices and closing some processing plants, a move that often affects how long it takes to deliver newspapers, especially for our out-of-area subscribers. In small towns, residents have adjusted to part-time and sometimes confusing hours in a slow drawing back of services that saves face and community pride.

Then and now, I can’t help but think that the nation’s web of postal infrastructure provides a phenomenal opportunity to provide better, more efficient and expanded services to rural communities, if only we had the tremendous political will needed to cross bureaucratic barriers and re-define rural post offices and their staff as all-purpose community service providers.

It would take a huge effort, probably high in government, to remake rural post offices into broader-use facilities, as Congress dictates not only postal prices but also services. In addition, many postal buildings are rented, making it harder to change these spaces. Multi-purpose staffing could be a bureaucratic nightmare, triggering fights over which agency would pay for what.

But it’s worth articulating the vision, a vision of thriving rural post offices that could capitalize on what are already their greatest strengths. In many places, post offices provide a regular contact for otherwise-isolated residents, and postal carriers form one of the few direct contacts for elderly or housebound citizens, or those without family. Daily mail delivery serves as an unofficial welfare check — carriers often know that, if the mail is picked up, the customer is OK.

Why not make this service official, a sort of in-person R.U.O.K. program? In Manchester, residents can sign up for a daily, free “Are you OK?” call at an agreed-upon time, and if two calls go unanswered, law enforcement performs a welfare check (a service our other communities could also consider).  With the U.S.P.S., residents could sign up for a service through which carriers who found mail left in its box could similarly trigger an “Are you OK?” call or in-person welfare check.

At rural post offices, space could be repurposed to fulfill more community functions. In communities that lack libraries, post offices could provide public internet terminals to rural residents, those Americans least likely to have home internet connections. Post offices could even provide small lending libraries, such as what is operated by the city of Worthington.

Where space allowed, the post office could provide a small, no-frills community meeting space, possibly merging some functions with a city hall.

In some communities, a post office remains where even a convenience store has closed. In these instances, a post office could provide small convenience items for its rural customers—food or toothpaste or stationary, items for which some people can’t drive 20 miles, and few people want to.

Of course, the greatest strength of rural post offices are their employees. Could we redefine their role to provide a broader set of services to rural customers, services they often already informally provide? In New York City, residents can call “311” as an all-purpose, non-emergency help line to access general information and government services. Let’s provide training so that thousands of postal workers in small towns across the country can better help their customers access a wide variety of federal, state and local services, providing an in-person “311” to point customers in the right direction for hunting licenses, tax help, voter registration, food pantries or counseling services.

Many of the things I’m suggesting are not money-makers themselves; some are, and some should be paid for by other funding streams. It would take tremendous courage to redefine postal purpose in rural areas, but doing so could invigorate postal services and small towns and provide better, and vital, services to our nation’s most isolated residents.

— Sara Millhouse can be reached at sara.millhouse@wcinet.com