Strong Post Offices Make Stronger Rural Communities

by Wes Brain, Community Organizer, Southern Oregon Jobs with Justice

saps-logo-whiteThough it’s been a fairly mild winter here in Oregon, most of the country has experienced record cold, snow and ice. News reports show cancelled flights, traffic snarls and closed businesses and offices. But you know what? The United States Postal Service (USPS) kept right on delivering the mail all over the country, just like it always has.

In rural Oregon rural communities like ours, the United States Postal Service also serves as a lifeline for basic necessities. The post office provides essential services that help local businesses, farmers and ranchers prosper and provide jobs.

In 2006 the Republican-controlled Congress forced the USPS to pre-fund retiree benefits for 75 years, far longer than any agency or business. Prompted by corporations like FedEx, Congress also made it illegal for the USPS to provide services beyond the “retail of mail.”

These blows weakened the USPS, forcing it to shift its main focus from delivering the mail to surviving financially. Everyday people, small town communities and local businesses suffer the consequences.

Rural Oregonians know our communities need and deserve more. Along with the Rural Organizing Project, small towns are banding together and declaring that we can do better.

As our economy and country continue to shift, why can’t the United States Postal Service change with it? What if we expanded delivery to seven days? What if we left our post office lobbies open 24/7 as places to rest and get out of the weather? Most of rural America does not have access to broadband internet, but every small-town post office does. What if the Postal Service opened their internet for community access?

Congressional restrictions phased out copying services and phone card sales. What if our post office was allowed to compete for that business?

The USPS used to offer postal banking, a service many countries’ postal services provide today. If returned here, what could that service do to boost the local economies of rural towns across the country?

Postmasters and rural letter carriers often check in on folks when their mail piles up. Why not allow families to contract with mail carriers to check in on the elderly or stop in town to pick up needed grocery items?

Post office lobbies across the country serve as the hub for spreading the latest community news and organizing responses to natural disasters. What if we could expand that community niche to include book exchanges, tool lending libraries or a one-stop shop for government services? Would the USPS stay in financial crisis if they could sell fishing licenses and provide other services in rural post offices?

For the last two years, small towns in rural Oregon have been scrambling to save their local post offices. First, 43 were slated for immediate closure, but were spared thanks to tireless organizing by those communities. Then 124 post offices faced severe hour and service cuts, some were closed and many now operate just a couple hours a day without a Postmaster. The Salem mail processing plant was closed in June, and Oregon mail processing plants are slated to close in Pendleton, Bend and Springfield. These plant closures mean that sending a letter from Baker City to La Grande will require a 560-mile trip to and from Portland’s mail processing plant first.

In a country where not a cent of our taxes goes to fund the USPS (yes, that is true), it is time to address the priorities that we Americans hold. Shouldn’t the ability to engage in the most basic form of communication – sending a letter affordably and reliably – be at the top of those priorities?

Small towns are getting by without libraries, schools and other basics – some struggle just to have their phone lines maintained. Rural Oregonians are fighting for future generations to be able to live a rural life. Together, we are clear: expanding the services post offices provide is what rural Oregonians need to thrive. We believe this does not need to cost more, but it does require that our communities come first.

The move to creatively envision and expand what small town post offices can provide is being advanced by the Rural Organizing Project and small town groups like Southern Oregon Jobs with Justice across the state.