There’s been a lot of talk lately about the urban-rural divide in this country. But the U.S. Postal Service has had to deal with it in one form or another since its founding.

Our recent white paper brings a useful historical perspective to the Postal Service’s long-time efforts to balance the often-conflicting demands of urban and rural customers.

What started as an urban enterprise quickly expanded to rural areas along with the growth of the country. The Post Office Department became one of the most important public institutions, commanding an outsized share of resources and influence in government.

In 1790, the newly independent United States of America had 75 post offices – mostly in cities – where Americans went to pick up their mail. That number quickly grew as the country and the post office network expanded. By 1850, more than 18,000 post offices were connected nationwide by over 100,000 miles of post roads.

Yet as the nation grew, postal services in urban and rural communities developed along distinctly different patterns and timelines. The introduction of free home delivery in 1863 was only for cities, where it was deemed cost effective. It would be another 30 years before rural areas, which were costlier to serve, would see Rural Free Delivery service rolled out. To get delivery, 100 families along a proposed route had to sign a petition that went to their member of Congress for approval and recommendation.

Indeed, Congress played a key role in shaping early postal policy, particularly in rural areas where it was involved at the granular level. Congress determined delivery routes, set rural transportation, and even appointed rural carriers. Over time, Congress has adjusted its positions to balance the competing goals of expanding postal services with covering costs.

These rural efforts had a considerable upside in the expansion and settlement of the country. The Post Office Department helped bring critical benefits to rural areas, including news and information, better roads, and access to more commercial and consumer products.

The vestiges of this history can still be seen today in debates around reform of the Postal Service and the ongoing challenge of balancing service with costs. Congress continues to advocate for rural postal services, seeking to ensure that any changes to USPS do not disadvantage rural areas that tend to rely on the Postal Service more than urban ones.

How would you recommend balancing the needs of urban and rural customers with costs? Are service needs the same in both areas?

Comments (4)

  • anon

    Technology aside, the U.S. Post Office, or more precisely, the “mailman” was (and may still be) almost part of the family. I worked for a short while as a Rural Letter Carrier, as a Substitute, in 1965 -66 in California’s Central Valley – the Visalia Post Office. My Father worked for the Post Office from the end of WWII until about 1980. His last 25 years with the Post office was as a rural letter carrier. As an older teenager I would ride along on his route - to learn it and eventually spent time learning how to sort the mail in the post office each morning before driving the route. Everything was hand sorted in the 1960’s. During the month of December each rural route was divided in half and a substitute would cover one half. Holiday mail volume approximately doubled in those days. UPS existed but not FedEx. Parcel Post (a “Post Office” function) is how most people sent packages, and Christmas time saw quite a lot. Throughout the year the mailman played an important role in the lives of the people who lived in areas served by postal rural routes. Each day, many of the people (the “postal patrons”) would be standing by the mailbox at the appointed time, waiting. A few friendly words would pass each time a patron was there at the box. Very often I would see in the rear view mirror a patron walk out his driveway to the mail box, obviously having watched for the arrival of the mail. On the first day of each month many more of the patrons were waiting at the box since social security and government benefit checks were mailed to arrive on the first of the month. The mailman knows everybody’s name (obviously) and something of everybody’s histories, and everybody knew who the mail man was. When I was the substitute, patrons I met would always ask where my dad was and how was he doing. They knew something was up when someone else brought the mail. Every day during the week before Christmas my Dad would come home with a pile of Christmas gifts patrons had left at the box for the mailman. This was an agricultural community so the gifts were usually fancy walnuts or pecans, boxes of oranges, baked things, candy samplers and such. Christmas gifts are always given to family members, sometimes to co-workers in a cooperative work place, and to the mailman. How many UPS or FedEx drivers can say this? The Post Office, or more precisely, the mailman, is almost part of the family. The mailman comes every day (week day) and the arrival of the mail is a minor event, but still an Event. When politicians take steps to interrupt or even change the mail service, everybody (read Everybody) notices. Tweaking the mail is not something that can be done in the dark while no one is looking. The mailman plays an important role in the lives of almost all Americans –much like health care does – and manipulating these immediately gets the attention of most people in the country. If the powers-that-be intend to make surreptitious adjustments to the conditions under which Americans live, doing something to the post office is not something that will stay under the radar.

    Aug 19, 2020
  • anon

    I live in a semi-rural setting served by group boxes. These boxes have been broken into, and in one case, robbed methodically by a criminal postal contractor. As "non-violent" crime, the perpetrators are typically released and so there are no teeth in the punishment. As a result I have needed to rent a PO Box for my financial mail. I now receive two copies of "Junk" mail. One to my group box, and one "stuffed" into my small rental box. This makes it necessary to sometimes pry my mail out. Given that I have a "street address" at which junk mail is delivered (along with non-financial mail) does the Post Office find it contractually mandatory to stuff a second copy into my small PO Box?? It is insane for me to have to deal with this twice and especially to have to decompress the junk mail from critical mail I am now paying extra to receive with less threat of theft. The small letter sized boxes are now around a hundred dollars a year to rent and were never designed to receive newspaper-sized or magazine-sized mail. Please give us a fighting chance to actually get our critical mail!

    May 07, 2020
  • anon

    We live less than a half mile off the road. The Nixa Post office will not deliver our packages to our house. We have asked them, and they say we are to far off the road. We pay for shipping with Amazon, QVC etc, but yet we have to go and pick up our packages at the post office. Also post office closes at 4:45 pm and I get off work at 4:30. Most people don't get off until 5:00 pm. How are we supposed to get our packages???? I have plans on Saturdays and don't have to time to go pick up packages I paid to have delivered!! Also when I purchase the products online it shows UPS (United Parcel Service) is the shipper. But for some reason UPS is handing off the packages to USPS, and Unites States Postal Service is not delivering the packages. Not happy!!!

    Jan 03, 2020
  • anon

    We live in a small community considered rural. Our house is set back from the road up a hill. Recently our mail person informed us that he could no longer deliver parcels at our door, but would have to leave them by our mail box on the road or we would have to drive 10 miles to our post office. This is not the mail carrier's fault, but rather a policy change and micromanaging mail carriers with GPS. Fed Ex, UPS, On Trac, etc. all still deliver to our door. Consequently, we are requesting online vendors to NOT use USPS for parcel delivery.

    Nov 27, 2019

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