The Death Of The Urban Post Office

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With the U.S. Postal Service possibly closing 3,653 facilities, much of the conversation has focused on the effect the action will have on the rural mail system. The actual list shows otherwise. What stands out the most from addresses on Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe’s “post office study” is the large number located in America’s decaying cities and towns, or neighborhoods that are dying in older municipalities.

The list of locations that may be closed in Michigan makes the case that it is the urban part of the U.S. Postal Service that will bear the brunt of closures. Ten offices in Detroit are on the list, as is the downtown post office in Flint, which may be the single hardest hit city financially in America since the recession began. Locations in other battered cities like Pontiac and Saginaw are on the list too.

Connecticut might be a better state to cite than Michigan. It has large rural areas as well as parts with concentrations of very wealthy people. Almost every post office on the Connecticut list is in an old city that has rapidly lost population: New Haven, Waterbury, Hartford, and Bridgeport. The economics of the suggestions certainly make sense. Some of these Connecticut and Michigan cities and dozens like them in other states have lost half or more of their populations during the last half century. A medium-sized city does not need seven or eight post offices. Three or four will do.

The fight over which post offices will eventually close will be more pitched in rural areas than urban ones, even if the number of locations set to be shuttered is numerically smaller. The people in Silver City, Iowa and Malmo, Nebraska could face the inconvenience that a twenty mile trip to a post office might cause. The U.S. Postal System management has not suggested that delivery service be cut from six days. That takes some of the leverage away from those who say that the Post Office will balance its books on the back of the American rural population. Everyone — city or country-dweller — will still get letters and parcels Monday through Saturday no matter how far a postman has to travel or what that trip costs.

The tragedy of the plans to close so many old cities’ Post Office locations is that it is one more buttress taken away from the economies of these locations. Mayors in Detroit, Bridgeport, and Oakland California have all claimed that they can bring their cities back. Those claims are unlikely to come true. These municipalities do not have the access to capital to build or rebuild infrastructure that new companies may require. The federal government will not underwrite it. The cities do not have work forces that are trained in most cases to handle the jobs common the parts of the U.S. economy that are growing, whether those are health services or technology jobs. The loss of a Post Office may hardly seem to matter unless it is on top of a number of others.

These will not be the last cuts the Post Office will have to make. It is already well on its way down the path the U.S. auto industry had to take. Its employment levels and infrastructure costs are much too large even with the suggested cuts. The system will still have 28,000 locations. The total savings from the shutdown of the offices on the Postmaster General’s list is forecast to be $200 million against an operation that loses almost $10 billion.

The residents of Detroit and Hartford do not need the Post Office nearly as much as they once did. Many have smartphones that allow them to send e-mails, transfer files, and buy goods and services that are sent to them by UPS (NYSE: UPS) and FedEx (NYSE: FDX). Much of the infrastructure old cities lost was because it was unused and therefore of little value. It will not be long before the federal government that funds the Post Office sees that its entire system is antiquated and that a service of half the size, or less, will do.

Douglas A. McIntyre