On a recent morning, a small crowd gathered in the freshly swept parking lot of the Lambrook, Ark., post office, a simple brick building with white trim. Word had spread quickly through the rural community of fewer than 100 residents that a meeting was being called that evening to talk about the U.S. Postal Service’s proposed plan to close the post office.
Frustration and anger flared across the beleaguered town that has already lost its school, farms, jobs and businesses to policies pushed by distant decision-makers with little regard for life in Lambrook and little explanation except the need to save money.
“They don’t understand what life is like out here. How can they even consider closing our post office?” says Pam Loveless, a Lambrook resident who remembers when it was a thriving town with six times the population.
Like Lambrook, rural communities throughout the country are fighting for survival as the federal government, states and cities, all buckling under failed economic recovery and fears of another recession, look to communities with the least voice to make their cuts.
“Now we have our federal government about to deliver the knockout punch by closing our post offices,” says Renee Carr, with the Arkansas Rural Community Alliance. “Any more of this, and rural communities across America will be down for the count.”
The postal service has proposed closing nearly 3,700 post offices nationwide. In the Pacific Northwest, Washington has 39 post offices that could close, while Oregon has 41, and Idaho has just under two dozen. Arkansas, with 179 locations on the list, is hit harder than any other state.
The closure plan, based on activity and revenue, disproportionately affects poor and isolated towns, whose residents depend on the branches for their mail, money, medicine and news. Local postmasters have been told little and warned not to talk about the closure with customers.
Arkansas state Sen. Missy Irvin (R-Mountain View) says she has contacted postal officials, but still doesn’t have an answer as to why so many post offices in her state are on the proposed closure list. “We are a rural state, we are not a wealthy state. We don’t have broadband access,” says Irvin. “It is puzzling that they would pick on us, and honestly that is the way people here feel.
“It is their point of contact to the outside world,” she says.
Irvin proposes that the postal service give residents a chance to save their post offices. “The post office representatives should come out here and say ‘We need you to drum up business.’ Tell the community what they have to do to improve the economic condition of the post office; give them a stake in it.”
Ironically, the post office closure list was released around the same time President Obama unveiled the White House Rural Council for strengthening America’s poorest communities with jobs, libraries, health clinics and broadband Internet access.
No one is holding their breath. Throughout the country, millions of Americans have seen their towns wither as libraries, grocery stores, roads and bridges succumb to the weak economy and government deficits. Foreclosed homes stand vacant in every neighborhood. But no communities have been hit harder than those with the least to lose.
Arkansas is the second poorest state in the country, right behind neighboring Mississippi. The average income is $38,500. Families in rural communities live on less than $20,000 a year — often much less. A farm worker may make as little as $13,000.
“It is discrimination. They are closing more post offices in Arkansas than in any other state,” says Mary Nell King, a retired postmaster from Humnoke, population 284. “They think we are backward and no one here will oppose them.”
Communities on the east side of the state, in the rich farmland of the Arkansas Delta, are predominantly African-American, clusters of families with deep roots, some going back to the Civil War.
In the fall, cotton, once the state’s premier crop, bursts in the fields. Now, more fields are planted with rice and soybeans. Forty-acre family farms are unable to compete with corporate mega-farms. Mechanization stole jobs, and workers fled to the cities.
Cotton gins that used to hum day and night are silent, standing like rusted battleships in empty fields. Walmart, Tyson Foods and the state government are the biggest employers now.
Rural communities like Lambrook, once lively with shops, gas stations, banks, schools and movie theaters, are barren. Store window panes are cracked, porches splintering and roofs rusted and sagging.
When Pam Loveless drives to the grocery store in Helena, she takes along an ice chest so her frozen food won’t thaw or the milk sour on the 47-mile trek back home.
Some rural school children, even kindergarteners, board the bus at 6 a.m. for the 50-mile trip to school, returning home after dark. The dawn-to-dusk commute, longer than most adults would tolerate, is the result of statewide consolidation of small schools seven years ago. Scores of rural schools were closed, theoretically to save money and improve education. Many contend it has done neither.
“It makes me burn to know what was done to those kids and those communities. It is inhumane to allow children to ride two hours each way on the bus,” says Lavina Grandon, policy and education director for the Arkansas Rural Community Alliance. “There is such an anti-rural bias.”
“All they told us is that the state has to cut costs,” says Lambrook resident Clyde Williams. “The department of education won’t come out here to talk to us.
“They know we are here, but they don’t care,” he adds.
Rural populations tend to be low-income, elderly and disabled, and many small-town residents receive their prescription medications by mail. They worry that if their post office were to close, they would have to drive to the closest town with a post office or pay a neighbor to make the trip.
The postal service is facing an $8.3 billion budget deficit this year. Besides closing branches, Postmaster General Pat Donahoe has suggested ending Saturday mail delivery and raising the price of stamps.
Part of the budget problem, according to postal officials, is the Internet. The ease of paying bills online, sending documents and even birthday greetings by email has cut into post office profits.
However, rural communities, where the most post offices will be closed, are the least likely to have Internet service. Few families have or can afford a computer or the smartphones carried by their urban counterparts.
“We need the post office. It isn’t something you want, it is something you need, like water,” says Leon Harris, who bought the grocery store in rural Sherrill, Ark., hoping to revive the town where he grew up. “No one has access to high-speed Internet here; we only have dial-up, and it is crazy slow.”
Postal union leaders and other critics of the proposed closures say the Internet isn’t the problem. The deep deficit was manufactured in 2006 when the outgoing Republican Congress required the post office to prepay 75 years of pension payments, pensions for employees not hired yet, maybe not even born yet.
U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., said he would rather not close the post offices, but understands that changes have to be made. “With regard to those changes, he has urged the postal service to be fair and remember that the rural post offices need as much service as large town post offices,” said Clermon Acklin, a spokesman for the senator.
Thousands of postal workers nationwide would lose their jobs under the closure plan. In Arkansas and across the country, rural families say they don’t see how closing their small post offices, usually with one or two employees in a modest leased or rented building, is going to save any money, much less billions.
But it is clear that the cost to small farmers, home-business owners and those determined to revive their rural communities will be significant. “It will be devastating — the final nail in the coffin,” says Carr, with the Rural Community Alliance. “Our post office is one of the last things we have going for us. Not everyone is on the Internet. People really rely on the post office.”
Tiny unincorporated Fox, in Stone County, Ark., lies deep in the northern Ozark Mountains. Stone County is among the poorest counties in the nation. The predominantly white community has a median household income of $22,000. Families that have been there for generations live down long, winding gravel and dirt roads where UPS and FedEx refuse to venture.
Some folks in Fox are artists and entrepreneurs with home businesses that rely on the post office; others are elderly or disabled. The next-nearest post office is about 18 miles away, mountain miles that can take 40 minutes to drive and are impossible in winter.
Fox residents have fought for their community before — they won the battle to keep their school — and they are girding to save their post office. “It’s a catastrophe for someone like me,” says Bill Amos, a war veteran who is blind. He receives his medicines by mail at the post office, a short walk from his modest home. “There are a lot of old people here who are pretty much homebound. What will they do?”
Back in Lambrook, more than 20 people attend the community meeting about their post office, anxious to hear details and then disappointed by the lack of information and empathy from Terry Shepherd, a post office representative from out of the area. Shepherd passes out survey forms and urges residents to contact their legislators with any concerns.
“This is your chance to comment. I promise you, your opinions and comments will not be taken lightly,” she says. “You can go online for more information.” Groans fill the room.
“If you don’t have a computer, we have a smartphone app,” she quickly adds. Eyes roll. Shepherd continues: “Write down your comments, give them a snapshot picture of Lambrook, Arkansas. Send them a letter.”
Lambrook’s Pam Loveless has another idea.
“Tell the decision-makers and policymakers to come here and share my life, see how I live, then make your decisions,” she says.
Copyright 2011 Equal Voice for America’s Families Newspaper, published by the Marguerite Casey Foundation. This story is reprinted with permission.