The post office in Tad, Kanawha County, on Sept. 10, 2020. Recent changes to the U.S. Postal Service have left rural Americans worried about their service, and voting advocates worried that ballots in November’s election won’t be promptly counted. Douglas Soule photo

Rob Larew grew up on a Monroe County dairy farm, and he knows how important the U.S. Postal Service is to rural West Virginians. 

Farms across the Mountain State rely on deliveries of supplies, even living things like chickens that have to show up on time. Other rural residents count on mail shipments for their prescription drugs.

“The Postal Service for rural residents is a lifeline,” Larew, president of the National Farmers Union, said from his farm in Greenville. 

While many services, such as banking, are moving online, about 14.5 million rural Americans  lack access to broadband, according to the Federal Communications Commission, making physical delivery all the more important.

Post office problems, including the crush of deliveries during the COVID-19 pandemic and concerns about November election ballots not making it on time because of cutbacks, have grabbed headlines in recent weeks. But long before then, Larew and his Monroe County neighbors knew the importance of the USPS. And they knew it was facing serious troubles.

“Rural residents, by a population, tend to skew older and also have more preexisting and ongoing health conditions that require medication,” he said. “The Postal Service is the primary delivery of those medical supplies.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Protection has found that Americans living in rural areas are more likely to die from heart disease, cancer, unintentional injuries, chronic lower respiratory disease and stroke than their urban counterparts.

Several signs, including warnings about the spread of COVID-19, are taped to the front door of the Tad post office. Douglas Soule photo

Between March 2003 and March 2018, 16% of independently-owned rural pharmacies closed, according to research by the University of Iowa’s RUPRI Center for Rural Health Policy Analysis. A new U.S. Senate report found “significant” delays in the deliveries of medications by the Postal Service.

The USPS has a universal service obligation to ensure all Americans can send and receive mail at a reasonable price. As a result, the Postal Service is often the only means for home delivery in rural areas.

The USPS, the only federal agency established in the U.S. Constitution, has the highest public approval rating among federal agencies, according to a Pew Research Center study published in April. More than 90% of the public view it favorably.

“West Virginians across the Mountain State rely on USPS to deliver medicine, social security benefits and other important mail. I’ve heard from more than 4,000 West Virginians about the critical role USPS plays and the need to ensure it is able to continue fully operating,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-WV, who has been a vocal advocate for the USPS, in a statement provided to Mountain State Spotlight. 

Yet, since 2010, 54 state post offices have closed, according to USPS data. This means one in every  dozen or so were removed; 678 currently remain.

The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting said West Virginia ranked No. 2 in most closures in that time period. 

“Having delays or even more decreased service in the Postal Service just continues to take power away from rural residents,” Larew said. 

A lost dog poster is taped on the window of the Tad post office. Douglas Soule photo

Aside from the recent post office changes, problems embattling the USPS include a decades-long decline in first-class mail and the COVID-19 pandemic. And, most notably, an act by Congress. 

In 2006, Congress passed the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act. A part of the act required the USPS to pre-fund retiree health benefits decades into the future, costing billions over an extended period of time. 

“This created a serious budget crunch for the post office that they have not yet really been able to get out from under,” said Matthew Titolo, a West Virginia University law professor and an expert on American public-private contracts and the outsourcing of core public functions to the private sector.

No other private or public entity has such a requirement. Titolo said the mandate should be repealed to address the brunt of the financial problems facing the USPS.

“This is a problem that really is essentially artificially created by Congress and can be fixed by Congress,” he said.

According to a 2019 report by the Government Accountability Office, USPS lost $69 billion over the previous 11 years.   

Some conservatives have suggested privatizing the USPS, and some USPS supporters worry the Trump administration is working to that end.

Public attention has recently focused on the U.S. Postal Service after newly appointed  Postmaster General Louis DeJoy oversaw cost-cutting measures, such as removal of sorting machines and canceling overtime, during a coronavirus-ridden election season flooded with absentee and mail-in ballots.

In late July, USPS sent warnings to 46 states — including West Virginia — and Washington, D.C., that some ballots might not be received in time to be counted. 

“Under normal circumstances, delayed mail is a major problem — during a pandemic in the middle of a presidential election, it is catastrophic,” wrote Senate Democrats in an Aug. 12 letter to DeJoy.

The next week, DeJoy temporarily suspended some USPS changes until after the election. Still, Titolo said current USPS processing problems and delays create concerns for the election.

“It’s no secret USPS has faced challenges as a result of economic changes and Congress itself,” Manchin said, “but right now, in the months leading up to an election, in the middle of a global pandemic, we need to need to focus on maintaining these essential services, not gutting them.”

Douglas Soule is a Report for America corps member who covers business and economic development. A Bridgeport native, he worked as an intern at the Charleston Gazette-Mail. He has served as editor-in-chief...