SPRING GROVE, Minn. -- Before anyone else, Steve Selness knows who here gets letters from collection agencies, who gets what bills and birthday cards.
Selness by no means peers through people's mail; he tries to pay attention merely to the address when sorting it each morning.
Rural carrier Steve Selness has a 102-mile route in southeastern Minnesota.
(Photos Robert Gutsche Jr. For The Washington Post)
"Sometimes there are certain things that are good for me to know about my customers, and then there are the things that aren't okay for me to know," said Selness, 44, one of two full-time rural mail carriers here who drives nearly six hours a day to bring mail to about 400 mailboxes in southeastern Minnesota.
In rural America, where people can live miles apart and still consider themselves the closest of neighbors, people tend know a lot about one another. But you know even more about neighbors if you are a rural mail carrier.
"I guess that's just what you get for living in a small town of 1,800," he said.
Things in rural America -- including how people get their mail -- may work a bit differently than elsewhere in the country, but even the nation's back roads cannot escape the economic and cultural impact of changes that may come from a possible overhaul of the U.S. Postal Service that is being considered in Congress.
Washington lawmakers are still stalled over how much flexibility to give the Postal Service in setting its own prices and whether the service should have more control over its pension savings and other retirement benefits. But with the Postal Service thinking about another postage increase, Congress probably will address the proposed legislation early in the new session.
For a decade, the USPS has been closing post offices to consolidate the sorting of mail at regional hubs and adding technology to the way workers handle mail to save the agency money.
Those changes alone have already had lasting effects on rural mail service. In tiny Woodman, Wis., for instance, the federal government closed its post office almost five years ago and initially moved operations into a small tavern where people would sort and pick up their mail.
But mail has not been sorted there in at least three years. Now when people send mail, it gets postmarked three towns away.
These closings mean jobs to small communities, but there is little to suggest an overhaul of USPS operations would signal a large drop in the need for rural mail carriers.
Postal jobs overall are expected to decline through 2012 as post offices continue to turn to technology to sort mail, but the number of rural carriers rose from 46,000 in the mid-1990s to about 63,000 today, about one-fifth of the country's total carriers, USPS officials said.
Still, rural carriers, who just now are starting to use computers, scanners to track mail and cell phones while on their routes, are preparing for more change.
They expect one day to receive everything pre-sorted -- everybody's mail sealed inside individual plastic bags.