Over the last 15 or so years, I’ve had two post offices vanish from towns I live in.
The first was in Maple Glen, PA, a small town we moved to when we left Hong Kong in 1997.
The town center, where the post office was located, is basically a triangle of shops, including a gas station, a car wash, a Supermarket and strip mall, and another small strip mall, as well as four banks.
For the first eight years we lived here, it was very convenient to have the post office. It was a place to buy a money order, or postage stamps, to send packages or larger envelopes that required weighing, particularly for sending abroad, It was also a social center. You got to know the postal workers, and they knew everyone, so it was a nice spot to pick up the local news. When it closed during the Obama administration’s round of cutbacks in funding for the USPS, it was a big loss.
The next nearest postal station to us at that point was several miles away — too far to go to by foot or bike, unless you had lots of time to spend in the effort which we seldom had.
The second was in a little hamlet called Fishs Eddy, up in the Catskills in what’s known as the Southern Tier of New York State. Fishs Eddy, with a population of under 200 people, has a long history. Located on the old and now defunct B&O Railroad which ran along the East Branch of the Delaware, it used to cater to vacationers from New York City, but now, its hotels and B&B establishments gone, the only employer in town is a family-owned lumber mill. The population of the place is well under 200.
Back in 1984, my wife and I spent everything we had ($16,500 at the time) and bought a run-down little Methodist church in town which needed urgent care to prevent part of the roof from collapsing and also to replace one wall of the stone cellar of the adjacent rectory, both of which I took care of promptly thanks to a $3000 loan from our bank.
It’s hard when you’re a denizen of New York City, to be accepted in a small piece of Appalachia like Fishs Eddy, where everyone is either related in some way, or knows each other since birth.
One reason we managed to fit in was our neighbors, the Rosengrants, a congenial family with several cute kids slightly older than our own daughter, who knew everyone in town. They became our friends right away.
The other was the local Post Office, with its delightful Postmistress, Robin Arnoldine.
Robin knew everyone, of course, because everyone in the town proper got their mail from a free lockbox in the one-room office which was on the end of the double-wide that Robin and her husband Gary called home. She was our source of news about goings on about town. I learned that “going to get the mail” was not just a ten-minute round-trip walk and a quick hello to Robin. It was at least a half hour of conversation, and not just with her, but with other folks who would come in for their mail while I was there.
It was at the post office where we’d learn if someone had died in town, or gone to the hospital, or why the paving of the old dirt and cinder railway right-of-way that one could drive to get to neighboring East Branch up river from Fishs Eddy, was a disaster waiting to happen (the Township of Hancock hadn’t put down a good gravel bed under the macadam and had laid the tar on too thin, so it would be doomed to frost heaves and cracks with the first frosts of winter). Robin knew everything there was to know about Fishs Eddy, and everyone got their news with their mail.
But as Robin got close to retirement, and she and Gary started thinking about retiring and moving to Binghamton, 45 miles up the highway, to be nearer to their kids, it became clear that the post office would not last. With the Obama administration looking at ways to cut the federal subsidy to the US Postal Service, small rural part-time post offices — particularly those that were rented to the USPS by the owners of homes like Robin, or to small shop owners — were being shuttered.
The community, learning the USPS was planning to shut down the Fishs Eddy PO, and with it the town’s own zip code, was angry. People wrote to their local Republican congressman, to their two Democratic Senators, and to their state representative and senator asking for help, but in the end the closing happened.
As a sop, the USPS agreed to set up, in the neighboring town of East Branch four miles away upriver, a separate wall of boxes for those in Fishs Eddy who still wanted a post office box. Those boxes would retain the Fishs Eddy zip code, though the post office building they were in had the East Branch zip.
It was better than nothing, but driving eight miles is a long haul to get your mail each day, so many people stopped going daily. Older folks who didn’t have a car had to depend on some neighbor bringing them their mail. And the postmaster of East Branch was nowhere near as knowledgeable a news source about Fishs Eddy as was Robin.
The social order began to break down.
Without the post office, it was a little like the town’s heart had been ripped out.
Postscript: We did get a post-office back a few years ago. After a lot of letters and cajoling of politicians, the USPS rented space from the Town of Hancock on the site of a daycare building in town, and put up a dedicated small building as a post office. It’s not quite the same. The people who serve as postmaster keep changing, and generally aren’t from town. But at least we do have our own post office back, at least for a while.
I’m writing this because the Trump administration is taking the defunding of the Post Office to a whole new level. No longer is it just a matter of saving money, which was bad enough under the Obama administration and the GW Bush administration before it. Now it’s political, with Trump admitting that he doesn’t want the USPS to be able to handle mailed in ballots this November.
He claims that mailed ballots are open to fraud, though the five states that have been using all mailed ballots or primarily mailed ballots in their elections, like Oregon and Colorado, have had no problems with fraud, and have, in fact had higher election participation than most US states— which is the real reason Trump and Republicans don’t like by-mail voting. The Republican Party’s main support is from older white males and to a lesser extent white females. That population cohort is on a demographic decline, being replaced by younger voters who skew Democratic or independent, and by people of color, who likewise tend to vote Democratic. Depressing democratic votes has become an existential strategy for the Republican Party, and preventing successful mail moving is part of that strategy.
The thing is, though, that Trump and Republicans in the Senate are shooting themselves in the foot on this one, because older people depend on the post office far more than young people. Not only is the PO a place to get out of the house and to meet friends and pick up on local gossip. It’s also how they get their medications, their magazines, letters from friends and family, and often also their Social Security checks. The older of the elderly also rely on the mail to vote, and they take voting seriously.
Woe to those who try to take all that away from them!
It’s worth noting that the US Post Office was established by the First Continental Congress in 1775, even before the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Benjamin Franklin was named the first US Postmaster General. While Franklin’s tenure in that position lasted only a year, he left his mark on the institution, insisting that the postal rate be affordable to all, not just the wealthy, and that it serve all Americans, not just those in the cities. Franklin saw the Post Office as a way to unify the disparate populations of the US states and territories, and he was right. It did that. Not just over distances, but also in individual communities, as explained above.
The institution has been tested with the introduction of competition from private delivery companies like FedEx, UPS, and now Amazon, but it remains essential. Those like Trump who would privatize it entirely in the name of “efficiency” or cost savings, or for political reasons must be resisted.
The real answer to the Post Office’s funding woes has been successfully discovered long ago by the countries of Europe as well as Taiwan and many other nations: allowing the Post Office to also be a public bank.
I saw how that works as a Fulbright professor living in Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan in 2004. I’d go to the local university postal station to mail some letters and along with postal clerks, there were windows for the post office bank. Usually the lines were longer at the bank windows than at the letter windows. I got an account there with a pass book. It was great for cashing my paycheck, changing money, and other business. My Taiwanese friends told me that they always put their savings in the Post Office bank for the higher interest they got, and that they also got the mortgages for their flats from the Post Office bank because it had the lowest rates and best terms.
Actually, the US Post Office did offer limited banking services from 1911 to 1967, when Congress did away with it. The PO’s bank only offered small passbook savings accounts but at one point had $3 billion in assets (equal to $30 billion in today’s dollars, and was certainly valued by those many rural folks whose towns had no bank. Why was the postal bank killed off? The usual suspects of course: the private banking industry.
This idea of a post office bank has been proposed in recent years and is favored by the Postal Workers Union, but is bitterly resisted by the powerful US banking industry, which correctly fears the competition would put it to shame. That effort should be crushed by popular demand. Having seen how the banking industry destroyed the US economy in 2007/8 and then lobbied for and received government handouts more profitable, concentrated and powerful after coming out of the Great Recession than when it they gave us Fiscal Crisis, we should all just say enough! We need a full service national public bank, and it should belong to USPS. Most of the Post Office’s funding problems would vanish if it were also a bank.
Not only that, but many rural communities that don’t even have a bank would suddenly have one in their little post office — again!
So enough of the talk about crushing the post office. Let’s all demand a public post office bank, and let’s demand an end to any postal cutbacks, in offices, personnel or overtime, until this election is over and this presidential term is ended.
Update: By the way, lest you think that the Trump Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy, is just moving some sorting machines, here’s a postal worker’s video showing what these mammoth machines are. You don’t move them. They are constructed in Post Office distribution centers, and you tear them apart and take them out in pieces. It’s official government vantalization!: https://www.dailykos.com/story/2020/8/18/1970417/-some-background-videos-to-inform-your-thining-about-the-USPS-sorting-machines