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?

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