Don’t mess with Postal Service’s universal service obligation

Published 7:05 pm Friday, March 29, 2019


The Advocate-Messenger

A lot has been said and is being done about improving broadband internet access for rural America. Developing internet infrastructure will be vital for the future of rural communities, in terms of both equality and economy.

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But there’s a different part of our infrastructure that is every bit as important to rural areas — and it is currently under threat: the U.S. Postal Service.

The USPS is how a ton of business gets done. It carries letters and packages from anywhere to anywhere in the country. And importantly for rural communities, it does so without discrimination based on where you live.

Right now, if you want to send a package to Los Angeles and you live in Danville, it will cost the same as if you sent it from Lexington, or Cincinnati, or New York City. There is no fee or surcharge for using the mail because you live on a farm instead of a metropolis.

That’s an intentional fact of how the USPS operates — it has a “universal service obligation” based in U.S. law. That obligation requires it to “provide a minimum level of service to all areas of the country,” according to the Office of the Inspector General.

Because of the universal service obligation, rural areas with relatively few residents get robust mail service. You can order something online and have it delivered to your door. You can sell something and ship it anywhere in the country. You are every bit as connected to the nation’s mail network as someone in a big city.

This equality is important to businesses of all sizes, and essential for maintaining the rights of rural citizens. But in an attempt to deal with billions in unfunded pension liabilities, a task force assembled by President Trump proposed last year solutions that include “messing with the universal service obligation,” according to David Dayen in The New Republic.

The task force proposes discriminating between “essential” and “inessential” types of mail, and its recommendations could mean “post offices that are costly to maintain could be closed more quickly,” Dayen writes, before noting that private delivery businesses such as FedEx already add a “delivery area surcharge” for harder-to-reach zip codes and this could be opening the door for the USPS to do the same.

eBay seller Bill Ingersoll wrote this month in an op-ed published in The Hill that efforts to designate rural areas as “non-essential” for mail service could wind up “cutting off access or dramatically raising prices for basic access to the U.S. postal system.”

Ingersoll lives in rural New York and sells Motocross and ATV equipment through eBay, and mostly uses USPS to deliver his goods to his customers. “If prices go up substantially, or if I stop being able to rely on USPS service altogether, my business would suffer,” he writes. “And I simply can’t rely on private shippers, who charge large surcharges for pickup and delivery to rural areas.”

Ingersoll also notes the importance of improved broadband internet access for the health of rural economies.

“We in rural America can bounce back. We can contribute. We can take care of ourselves, and we don’t need saving,” he writes. “We just want the same tools, and the same chance to compete, as everyone else.”

It is true that something must be done to get the USPS on solid financial footing. But those solutions cannot involve undermining the agency’s universal service obligation, or we will be saving the mail for city residents by taking it away from rural ones.