The Social Value of the Post Office

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In February of 2010, the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan economic and social policy research organization, prepared a white paper commissioned by the Postal Regulatory Commission entitled “A Framework for Considering the Social Value of Postal Services.”  Its purpose was to “identify the array of benefits provided by the United States Postal Service—through its mail service and post offices—that contribute to the social value of the post.”

It’s not a particularly recent study, and its results won’t come as news to those who know and value their local post office.  If you’ve been reading the daily news about post office closings, you know all about why citizens, government officials, and local business people value their post office.  Still, it’s worth reviewing the conclusions of the report, just as a reminder of why it’s so important to preserve brick-and-mortar post offices.

The report breaks down the benefits of the postal service into eight categories. The study considers the benefits of the postal service as a whole, and in particular to rural customers and vulnerable populations.  Here’s a bullet-point summary of its conclusions with regard just to brick-and-mortar post offices.

1. Consumer Benefits

  • USPS employees provide information about postal products and services.
  • Mail delivered to P.O. boxes is almost always in by 11:00 am or 11:15 a.m., much earlier than home delivery.
  • Travelers and the homeless can use general delivery to receive mail.
  • Individuals can obtain special services, certified mail, registered mail, delivery confirmation, signature confirmation, and insurance.

2. Business Benefits

  • Post office boxes provide a timely way for small businesses to get mail. Mail arrives at the same time each day.
  • USPS provides stable jobs and has a history of providing employment opportunities to minorities. This stable employment has a ripple effect in communities where these individuals live.
  • Some post offices lease their space, which provides a steady flow of rental income to the community.
  • By helping to generate economic activity for a downtown area, the post office helps maintain property values and commercial activity, which in turn produces tax revenue for local government. These taxes bring benefits to entire community.
  • Post offices bring increased foot traffic for nearby businesses. USPS customers and employees bring business to local shops.
  • Post offices identify the “main street” of the community, and they anchor the retail center. It may be harder to retain or attract other business if post office closes.  Closure signals giving up on community.

  • A downtown post office makes it more likely that people will want to work near the commercial district.
  • A centrally located post office is easy to reach on foot or by public transportation, making it more accessible to elderly, disabled, and low-income populations and increasing the number of transactions that will be conducted at and near the post office.
  • When postal and other government services are located downtown, governments can maximize the value of existing infrastructure, such as roads, utility lines, and municipal service like police, fire, and ambulance protection, rather than spending money to extend infrastructure and services to new, less developed areas.

3. Safety and Security

  • Postal service and post offices are a reassuring sign of presence of U.S. government in communities.
  • Mail delivered to box at post-office or to a blue box is secure.
  • Postal clerks can watch for suspicious mailing behavior and flag potential problem packages.
  • Customer traffic to post offices means a safer environment for other businesses and shoppers.
  • People trust USPS to keep their mail safe and to get it to its destination in a timely and secure manner.
  • Postal employees assist federal, state, and local law enforcement authorities. They collect evidence and otherwise assist in criminal investigations.

4. Environmental Benefits

  • Post offices are located in areas near other public buildings and businesses, reducing the need for consumers to make multiple trips.
  • Some post offices are drop-off points for recycling cell phones and other goods.

5. Facilitating government services

  • Individuals can obtain forms to register to vote and apply for an absentee ballot in the post office.
  • Individuals can apply for and receive passports.
  • Individuals can obtain federal tax forms at post offices.

6. Information Exchange

  • Materials displayed in post offices include wanted criminal/fugitive posters, missing children posters, and community notices.

7. Social Linkages

  • People often know their postmaster and are familiar with post office employees. The postmaster tends to be one of the leaders in the community
  • Postal service and local post offices support social connection and community identity.
  • In rural areas much of mail is delivered to P.O. boxes so residents come to the post office every day.  Rural post offices are gathering places central to a community’s social and cultural life.
  • The post office is a place to see others in the community, including people of all kinds.
  • Post offices establish community identity, especially in rural areas, and engender community cohesion.
  • People can send packages to family members in college or the military.
  • Mail carriers participate in annual food drives and a variety of volunteer activities
  • Postmasters help customers with low literacy levels by reading the mail to them, helping them write checks, etc.
  • People can mail packages to their home countries. Because international transactions can be complex, face-to-face assistance particularly for those with limited English.

8. Civic Pride and Patriotism

  • USPS is a symbol of the federal government.
  • USPS is a trusted, personal representation—a “face”—of the federal government.
  • The post office is tied to community identity.  Post offices and communities often have the same name.
  • USPS continues to be the most valued government agency. In surveys, it is among the top five most respected and valued businesses in the country

(Image credits: “The Rural Post Office” (1857) by Thomas P. Rossiter (American painter, 1818-1871); network of people graphic)

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