Several prominent Democrats — including Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand; and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — support the idea of providing basic banking services through U.S. post offices.
There are several reasons why advocates are getting behind this concept, but the main idea is concern for Americans who live and work in so-called “banking deserts,” where access to basic financial services is limited by geography. Supporters believe that mandating the United States Postal Service (USPS) to provide basic financial services would help address the problem of banking deserts.
While it’s true that banks have closed branches in many communities, due in part to the spate of mergers following the Great Recession, there are still far more bank and credit union branches than there are post offices. This makes us wonder how many Americans really have better access to post office locations than to credit union or bank branches.
According to my analysis of available location data for banks, credit unions and post offices, it seems that post offices are a less convenient option for most Americans. However, this fact does not mean the financial and banking needs of a substantial number of adults are well-served.
- About 20% of U.S. counties have more post offices than banks and credit unions. Those counties are home to about 7.2 million adults, or 3% of the entire adult U.S. population.
- Around 1% of counties have a post office but no bank or credit union branch, representing an adult population of under 207,000 people, or 0.1% of the adult population.
- There are about 88,500 bank branches in the U.S., over three times the 26,500 U.S. post offices I was able to map. Adding in almost 22,000 credit union branches, there are about four traditional banking branches for each post office.
- Nearly 32% of zip codes are home to one post office and no bank or credit union. These are the only examples of zip codes where post offices outnumber traditional bank or credit union branches.
- Around 38% of zip codes have a greater combination of banks and credit unions than post offices.
- Almost 16% of zip codes have neither a post office nor a bank or credit union. Meanwhile, 13% have an even number of post offices and bank and/or credit union branches.
Putting it in context
It’s important to remember that traditional bank and credit union branches aren’t the only game in town. The internet and mobile technology have greatly expanded the reach of banking services. People can use computers and smartphones to deposit checks, transfer money, pay their friends and even apply for loans.
Online banking is not a solution for people who lack technology access or skills, but basic financial services are also available at nonbank retail outlets, such as currency exchanges or check cashing offices. Walmart claims that it serves millions of people at the MoneyCenter offices in their stores.
Our analysis was broken down by zip code to capture smaller geographies, but a person might live one block, 20 blocks or 15 miles from the next zip code. In addition, our county-level analysis attempts to give a better sense of how much access people have, particularly rural or suburban Americans who are more likely to be car dependent.
Limitations of the analysis
Finding a list of post offices has proven challenging. In the end, I had to download individual state pages from the USPS website, but there did appear to be some issues with their list, which only presented state, zip code, name and the date that a post office was decommissioned. Many of the post offices did not have zip code information, and a spot check of about a dozen such lines didn’t show post offices with those names. Additionally, 539 post offices had zip codes that didn’t appear on a zip code to county crosswalk from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and a search for a sample of those zip codes on the USPS site showed that they were invalid. It’s possible that we are undercounting post offices because of the issues inherent in the data.
It’s also the case that some zip codes map to multiple counties, presumably in very low-density places. I assigned those post offices to the first county associated with the zip code, on the basis that it seems to be the primary county associated with it. This applied to over 9,400 post offices.
The post office reports that there are 31,324 Postal Service-managed retail post offices in the United States, and I was able to map 26,516 locations. I excluded post offices in U.S. territories, such as Puerto Rico, Guam and the Virgin Islands, among others. It’s also possible that the larger number includes services available inside third-party stores or colleges.
There were no such issues with the bank branch or credit union locations, which included county data.
Using data from the FDIC and NCUA, I mapped the total number of bank branches and credit unions according to their reported zip codes and counties. Using data from the U.S. Postal Service, I mapped post offices according to the reported zip codes, and used the zip code to county crosswalk from HUD to map them to counties. In the event that multiple counties were associated with a single zip code, I used the first-named county.
Mapped bank addresses were limited to full-service brick-and-mortar offices, full-service retail offices, full service seasonal offices, limited service facilities and limited service contractual offices. Listed post offices with blank or non-existent zip codes were excluded, following spot checks that were unable to identify those zip codes or post offices through other USPS search portals.