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Rural Post Offices in Crisis

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The post office in Nilwood, Ill., serves as an informal community center.

The post office in Nilwood, Ill., serves as an informal community center. (Bill Wheelhouse/Harvest Public Media)

The U.S. Postal Service is in the midst of a major cost-cutting effort. Along with the well-publicized end of Saturday delivery that may happen this year and consolidating major mail centers, there is another move that is hitting home in rural America.  

It’s mid-morning on a bleak March day in Nilwood, Ill. Every 10 minutes or so, a car or truck pulls into the gravel parking lot in front of the south-central Illinois town’s post office.  

Because there is no mail delivery here, the town’s 236 residents must stop in to the post office to stay connected. Staffed by one full-time postmaster and one relief person, this office provides mail service six days a week.

As in many rural communities across the country, the post office serves as an informal community center, but that picture is changing.

The U.S. Postal Service is in the process of cutting service to approximately 13,000 post offices, many of them in rural areas. It is part of what is called Post Plan, a reorganization effort designed to cut costs.

“I think it would be terrible. Where would I get my mail? I’d have to drive somewhere else,” said Doris Love as she picked up her mail at the Nilwood post office. “It would be very inconvenient.”

Under Post Plan, people like Love would still get their mail at the local post office, but the operating hours would likely be cut in half.

That’s actually an improvement, of sorts. Back in 2011, Nilwood was on a list of 4,000 post offices slated for closure. However, postal officials changed their mind after a public outcry. Instead, the Postal Service now says it will cut hours and move away from having full-time postmasters at 13,000 post offices, about 37 percent of the postal locations across the country. (Click here for a list of the affected post offices.)  

Steve Hutkins, who founded the website www.savethepostoffice.com in 2011, said he believes that a reduction in hours is the first step to eventually closing facilities.

“I would say the post office is downsizing itself. The other changes it has made will slow down the mail. If a post office is only open two to four hours a day it is not going to be able to perform the functions it had in the past. It will be very hard to rebuild once it is lost,” Hutkins said.

Hutkins, who started his website to provide updates when the Postal Service announced that it would close the post office in his small community in New York’s Hudson Valley, said post offices are particularly important in small towns.

“People stop by and say hi to each other and that sort of thing and they share information about what’s going on in the town. In my post office there is a bulletin board with everything from a lost dog to the bake sale,” he said.

Timothy Collins, assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University, pointed to a larger issue.

“Over the past 10 or 15 years, there’s been what I call a phased withdrawal of the federal government from rural America” he said, citing federal support for soil conservation services and extension services as examples of where the government has reduced its commitment.

The Postal Service’s financial woes are caused in part by a congressional requirement that the service pre-pay retirement benefits. Postal officials also cite the increased use of e-mail and electronic bill paying as reasons revenue from first class mail is drying up. 

But Collins said that’s precisely the problem.

“Rural areas are underserved by new technology. A lot of people are not connected to high speed internet in those areas and will feel the impact” He said, adding that the negative side of this will fall on the elderly and middle-aged residents who are not computer savvy

Collins also noted an irony in that many rural residents have a dislike of government, but now the government cut will have a negative impact on the community.

Postal officials hope to have the changes made nationwide by the end of 2014. There have been thousands of community meetings over the past year and they are to continue in the coming weeks and months.

As of mid-March, Nilwood hasn’t received notice that the Postal Service would hold a meeting here about the changing hours. But for many in the town, when that letter does come, it will have a lot more unwelcome news than the weekly paper that shows up in their mailbox on Thursday mornings.

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