Residents of Paint Lick don’t like to dwell on what’s been lost: the grocery stores, the gas station, the barbershop, the local bank, and countless residents who have moved away or died.
Instead, in this rural Appalachian town in Garrard County suffering decades of business loss, residents have championed an attitude that’s become something of a civic slogan: “Press on regardless,” in the words of a long-departed local leader, Dean Cornett.
What presses on are the few institutions that remain: a doctor’s office, an environmental consultancy, an auto mechanic, and what might be the most important institution of all—the post office.
“The mail is just vital to folks out in a rural community,” said Joe Brown, a lifelong resident of Paint Lick.
But Paint Lick’s post office is struggling. It’s now open just two hours a day for retail, and rumors have been swirling for years it will close. Brown said he’s thankful the post office is still open at all.
Kentucky’s rural post offices are threatened. Over the last decade, more post offices have been closed in Kentucky than in any other state, according to data from the U.S. Postal Service. Closures have hit every region, from coal towns in Appalachia to villages in the open fields of the Jackson Purchase.
What’s lost is a beloved institution and last public commons in communities with few if any public spaces left.
“The post office is a gathering place. It’s a hub for local information exchange,” said Ken Tunnell, a Paint Lick resident and sociologist who taught at Eastern Kentucky University.
Most of the Kentucky towns that have lost a post office are rural, unincorporated, and losing people. Disproportionately poor and elderly, they’re places where vital services are already difficult to access and where high-paying jobs can be hard to find.
For years, conservative policymakers have targeted rural mail delivery for privatization, restructuring, or downsizing. The fight ramped up last month when U.S. Sen. Rand Paul said the Postal Service should save money by slashing jobs and reducing rural delivery. President Donald Trump has opposed an emergency USPS bailout and efforts to expand mail-balloting in the November election.
Rural Kentuckians are paying attention. The USPS delivers mail to every address in the state, providing prescription medicine, Social Security Checks, and correspondence to the most remote homes not reached by private carriers.
Mail delays can be dangerous. Brown, 74, is an Army veteran who relies on the U.S. Postal Service to deliver medication. This summer, medicine that typically arrives in 18 days took five weeks to arrive.
Those rallying behind the USPS also say rural post office closures and service reductions undermine something more basic: local autonomy and identity.
“Part of the pride of the community in that you have a post office,” said Brown. “In our little village of Paint Lick, it’d be another devastating blow if the post office were no longer there.”
Trusted in rural Kentucky
The Postal Service is one of the oldest government services, enshrined in Article I of the U.S. Constitution. The first post office in the present-day borders of Kentucky was opened in Danville, in 1792.
Today Americans consistently rate the Postal Service to be one of the most trusted government agencies. The support is bipartisan. A public opinion poll conducted by Pew Research Center in March found an overwhelming 91% of both Democrats and Republicans had a favorable view of the Postal Service.
Katie Rollins knows that trust firsthand. She worked for 12 years at the post office in Paint Lick, her adopted hometown. Residents still trust her with confidential tasks.
When one elderly Paint Lick resident needed cash to send her great-granddaughter a birthday gift, she recruited Rollins to help. The two were strangers, but the elderly woman trusted Rollins to withdraw money from her bank account, unsupervised, because she knew Rollins had worked at the post office.
“I was like a social worker to those people,” Rollins said.
The post office is where the oft-anonymous government bureaucracy gets a human face. As a post office employee, Rollins said she often assisted adults who needed help drafting letters, filling out government forms, or writing checks. Others were in poor health and couldn’t sign their own name, let alone hold a pen.
“These elderly people down here don’t have anybody,” Rollins said. “They need that post office.”
The post office forms a core part of rural history, particularly in Appalachian coal country.
More than a century ago, when permanent settlements developed around Kentucky’s coal mines, records were often lost or not kept in the first place.
But there was one date that was both well-documented and well-accepted to mean a community was on the map: the date its post office was established.
“We tag the history of a lot of these little places by when the post office was established, because we don’t have records of when the first ton of coal was brought out, or when the first people were settled,” explained Ken Martis, a professor emeritus of geography at West Virginia University. “The post office was a good marker of the historical establishment of a place.”
The loss of a post office can signal the opposite: a community in decline. Most towns that have lost their post office also are losing residents and businesses.
Two decades of challenges for USPS
Mount Eden, a small unincorporated town in rural Spencer County, lost its post office in 2017, according to USPS. The building is now home to a maker of headstones and monuments.
Residents miss the convenience of a local post office. They have to travel 10 miles to Waddy, the next-closest post office. But they still get home mail delivery six days a week, an essential if imperfect service. Longtime Mount Eden residents said there are occasional service delays as well as high rates of carrier turnover.
“As far as our mail service, they’re very spotty,” said resident Chris Hensley. Part of the problem is that the rural carriers are overworked, he added.
Mount Eden’s post office was one of 699 shuttered nationwide between 2010 and 2020, according to USPS data. Kentucky was hit hardest.
The 62 offices closed in the Bluegrass State means one in every 11 discontinued post offices was in Kentucky. West Virginia’s 54 closed offices ranked second, while Pennsylvania’s 52 came in third.
The Postal Service workforce is shrinking, too. In 1999, USPS employed roughly 800,000 career workers, according to USPS data. Twenty years later, that figure had fallen to 500,000, a 37% decrease.
In Kentucky, the number of postal workers has dropped about 8% over the last decade, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The decline in Postal Service jobs is a particular crisis in rural communities, where government mail service is most essential and where delivering mail has cleared a reliable path into the middle class.
“Especially in rural areas, where jobs are harder to come by that aren’t just minimum wage, people feel really lucky to get a job like it,” said Silas House, a Lexington-based writer who worked as a mail carrier in rural Laurel County in the early 2000s.
House, who recently defended rural mail service in an essay for The Atlantic, said the job was “incredibly hard,” involving long days on his feet, uncooperative weather, and difficult terrain in the mountains of Appalachia. He had a gun pulled on him twice. Yet the work remains essential, he said.
“A lot of these areas don’t have UPS or FedEx, or those services are much more expensive,” House said. “My service was a real lifeline in many ways for the people in the very rural areas.”
The USPS faces big challenges. Due to the ubiquity of email and social media, the emergence of competitor online retailers such as Amazon, and a 2006 law requiring the Postal Service to pre-fund its retiree benefits program, mail volume is dwindling while USPS debts mount.
In the third quarter of FY20, USPS reported a net loss of $2.2 billion, nearly matching the $2.3 billion net loss in the same quarter last year. In addition to attacking voting by mail, Trump has said he opposes a USPS bailout. Last week, Sen. Paul, a Kentucky Republican, said cutting a single day of rural service would save up to $1.5 billion. He also suggested reducing rural delivery to as few as two days a week.
But advocates of rural delivery emphasize that the value of the Postal Service shouldn’t be reduced to a cost-benefit analysis.
“The Postal Service is not a business. It’s a government service,” said Stan Brunn, a professor emeritus of geography at the University of Kentucky who grew up in the rural Midwest. “It’s designed to serve everybody. It’s not just serving specific clientele.”
A USPS spokesperson based in Kentucky said there are currently no plans to close post offices.
As states and counties prepare for unprecedented numbers of voters to participate in the November election by mail, some have accused the Trump administration of sabotaging the USPS as a way to undercut Democrats. In a Congressional hearing earlier this month, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy was grilled by lawmakers over his decision to cut some employee overtime and remove sorting machines. DeJoy told senators delivering election mail was a “sacred duty” that the USPS would fulfill “securely and on time.”
Last week, residents of Inez, a small Appalachian town in Martin County, staged a protest against Robert “Mike” Duncan, chairman of the USPS board of governors and a friend of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Protester Mickey McCoy said Duncan was “slowing down the post office” to benefit Trump.
With so many residents of Martin County living in rural areas at or below the poverty level, “this is like a kick in the nuts to all of them for slowing down the Postal Service,” said McCoy, a retired English teacher who serves on the county board of education.
Caught in the middle of the politics are rural Americans, who live in communities where political frustrations are already palpable.
“This is just another assault on people and communities that in many cases feel abandoned already,” said Shane Barton, an economic developer at the University of Kentucky and candidate for Berea City Council. A ninth-generation resident of Appalachia, Barton said the Postal Service strengthens “mountain values” such as resilience and neighborliness. “However large or small that post office is, it provides a public benefit.”
Data from the U.S. Postal Service shows mail service performance, a measurement of delivery and processing times compared to expectations, declined in July.
Kentucky ranks in the bottom 10 states in per-capita mail sorters, processors, and processing machine operators, according to BLS data. That’s one of several concerns for the November election.
In Kentucky, any voter who wants an absentee ballot can request one at GoVoteKy.com, and state officials have approved a plan through which any voter concerned about the spread of COVID-19 can cast an absentee ballot and vote by mail.
Ballots must be postmarked by Election Day — Tuesday, Nov. 3 — and received by county clerks by Nov. 6 in order to count. The three-day cushion after Election Day could help mitigate some issues with mail delays.
To ensure the integrity of the mail system in the small towns where post offices are still open, residents say it’s paramount they stay open.
When asked what the closure of the Paint Lick post office would mean for the town, Rollins refused to consider the possibility. She and the rest of her adopted town plan to press on regardless of obstacles.
“It won’t close in Paint Lick, Ky. We will stop it,” she said. “We’re going to strive, no matter what. We have people down here who care.”
Graham Ambrose is an investigative reporter covering social services and youth issues. He is a Report for America Corps member. Contact Graham at firstname.lastname@example.org.