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If the US Postal Service fails, rural America will suffer the most

The USPS is “a lifeline” for many remote and Native communities.

A rural mail carrier makes their way along Star Tannery Road in Star Tannery, Virginia, in 2011.
| Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Since the coronavirus pandemic hit, the volume of mail delivered by the US Postal Service has drastically declined. Businesses have cut back on sending advertisements and bulk mail — the agency’s main source of revenue — leaving it on track to possibly run out of money by September.

To save its services, the agency is asking Congress for $89 billion. Democrats want to meet the USPS’s needs and ensure funding in the next coronavirus relief bill. Republicans, however, are seizing this as an opportunity to privatize the agency, an agenda they’ve been pushing for years. President Donald Trump is also on board, refusing to sign a new bill that includes funding for the postal service.

The president’s disapproval of the agency is well-documented. In the past, he’s pushed for service cuts in the fiscal budget and indicated that he wanted the USPS to raise rates for packages. However, these actions would have dire consequences for Americans, especially those below the poverty line who live in remote areas and rely heavily on the USPS for their mail.

The absence of the USPS would particularly affect indigenous people living in tribal lands, as there are already few resources dedicated to keeping them connected with the world, said Twyla Baker, of the Mandan-Hidatsa tribe in North Dakota.

“It would just be kind of a continuation of these structures in the US that already dispossessed people of color, black and indigenous people of color, and people below the poverty line,” Baker said.

The USPS is legally required to deliver all mail, to all postal addresses in all regions, at a flat rate, no matter how far it may have to travel. The service’s accessibility and affordability are especially important to rural communities that live in poverty and to people with disabilities, who can’t afford the cost of a private business to deliver their daily necessities. (In 2017, the rural poverty rate was 16.4 percent, compared with 12.9 percent for urban areas.)

And while some may argue that the USPS is becoming more obsolete as an increasing number of services are becoming digitalized, there’s still a large chunk of people who rely on mail because they have poor (or no) internet service. (The Federal Communications Commission estimates that 14.5 million people in rural areas lack access to broadband.) In fact, 18 percent of Americans still pay their bills by mail, according to an ACI Worldwide report; meanwhile, 20 percent of adults over 40 who take medication for a chronic condition get those pills by mail order, according to a survey by the National Community Pharmacists Association.

Then there are the several small towns around the country that vote only by mail because they’re not populated enough to open up polls. In Minnesota, for example, 130,000 receive a mailed ballot every election because they live in a town with fewer than 400 people.

“USPS isn’t just a public service,” Baker said. “It’s a lifeline.”

Companies like FedEx and UPS often don’t deliver to remote rural areas

The USPS is crucial to rural America because it is obligated by law to serve all postal addresses with no differences in the fees it charges. As required by congressional mandate, the agency ensures that all Americans are connected.

The USPS was never really meant to operate as a business but as a public service, which is why it’s been able to keep its prices lower than private companies. Businesses like FedEx and UPS don’t build offices in remote rural areas, like deep in Wyoming or in the mountains of Colorado, because it’s simply not profitable. They often rely on the Post Office for last-mile delivery; the agency delivers mail for them from major transportation hubs to the final delivery destination, often in secluded areas.

This ultimately means that without the USPS, FedEx and UPS won’t have the resources to deliver to remote rural areas, nor will they likely make investments to do so since they’ll lose money in the process. Instead, people will have to bear the burden of traveling to the companies’ offices in larger towns to meet their mailing needs. For Mary Meyer, who lives in Bucyrus, Ohio — a town with a population of about 11,000 — the closest UPS customer center is 16 miles away in Marion.

Meyer knows firsthand how heavily rural Americans rely on the Postal Service because she used to live in Findlay, the second-largest city in northwest Ohio. Because the area is more populated — urban enough to have a UPS store down the street — than Bucyrus, she had more options when buying daily necessities. Now, however, she needs to buy most toiletries for her special skin condition online, and her current location is so remote that only USPS delivers her parcels.

“The only store we have here is a Walmart. So for clothes or even like deodorant or toiletries that I need for my certain skin condition, or brands that are more eco-friendly that I prefer to use and support — they’re not an option here,” she said. “If USPS got shut down, what concerns me the most is that I would lose — not just me, but all of us — we would lose a valuable resource that is so integral to American life, especially in rural America.”

Meanwhile, Baker said some people in her tribe don’t even have a car to drive to the closest town with a FedEx, let alone can they afford the price differences in sending mail.

“It’s like a Catch-22: It costs money to be in poverty. It costs money in terms of time spent waiting for a bus. Time spent getting up earlier,” Baker said. “It costs extra money to use the for-profit services. It’s almost like a penalty fee for being in poverty. It’s so unfair, and frankly, it’s enraging.”

For the disabled and elderly, medication delivery is a crucial service

Accessing medication in rural areas can be a struggle when a town is too small to support a pharmacy. But for those who are disabled or elderly, physically filling prescriptions can be an impossible task — which is why many rely on the Postal Service to deliver their meds.

More than half the people who get their medicine delivered are over the age of 65, according to a report from the National Community Pharmacists Association — and 54 percent of this group takes more than four different types of medication. If the USPS shuts down, then they will be left without an affordable option to access vital drugs.

People with disabilities rely on the Postal Service to mail their prescriptions for similar reasons. Many simply cannot travel to the closest city, let alone leave their houses, to pick up their prescriptions. And a significant number of those who belong to this community are also veterans that have signed up for the Veterans Affairs’s “Meds by Mail” program, which delivers medications to their house. The shutdown of the USPS could ultimately disrupt the services of another government agency that serves a vulnerable population.

“It’s a real challenge, especially as you see a lot more local mom-and-pop-style pharmacies close down,” said Rebecca Cokley, director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress. “For a lot of people in rural America and people with disabilities, it does make it significantly harder to access medication.”

The situation will grow more dire if the pandemic goes on past September and the Postal Service does shut down, Cokley said. “The fact that the president is talking about closing Post Offices ... and the notion that people would now have to go out to their pharmacy, to their grocery store, instead of being able to stay home and access their medications from home, puts them at greater risk for contracting the virus,” she said.

If the Postal Service fails, rural Americans’ voting rights are at risk

The USPS also serves a crucial role in ensuring that everyone has a right to vote by delivering mail-in ballots to the most remote areas of America. Several states allow those in small towns to vote by mail so that they don’t have to travel miles to their polling area in larger cities. It’s played a particularly important role in rural areas where the population is growing older — rural communities have the largest share of people above the age of 65 — and is less mobile than younger generations.

John Koetzner, from Healdsburg, California, is one of the many people in the state who sends his vote in by mail because he lives in a remote area with no voting precinct.

“That’s probably the most important thing that I have going through the mail — my right to vote,” he said. “I use the Post Office to receive [my ballot] and to send it.”

Although it’s free for him to send his mail-in ballot (California has been providing paid-postage ballots for all mail-in voters since 2019), that could change if the Trump administration continues to remain indifferent to the agency’s financial woes. A FedEx envelope costs at least $8.50, which is 15 times more expensive than what the post office charges — a hefty price difference for both voters and state governments to accommodate.

The voting rights of indigenous people would particularly be at risk, Baker said, because they’ve already been dispossessed when it comes to elections due to restrictive voter identification requirements for in-person voting. In response to these constraints, Baker said her tribe had mobilized to encourage and help people sign up to vote by mail, since North Dakota provides no-excuse absentee voting. That could all fall apart, however, if access to affordable mail becomes obsolete.

As of now, there’s no sign that Trump will support any additional funding for the USPS. Congress did grant the agency a $10 billion loan from the US Treasury in the last coronavirus relief bill, but it’s a modest move considering that Democrats initially wanted to give it a $25 billion grant. In a show of support, people have been ordering stamps online and are encouraging others on social media to do the same to help save the agency.

Ultimately, the absence of the Postal Service could lead to major disenfranchisement among rural communities, Koetzner said, and that alone should be enough of a reason to support the agency.

“The most important aspect of being a citizen is being able to exercise our right to vote,” Koetzner said. “And having that stripped away by closing Post Offices would basically nullify our most significant right of all.”


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