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The Postal Service is slowing the mail to save money. Critics say it's a death spiral

A man pulls up to drop off mail at the mailboxes at the Portland Post Office in Portland, Maine, on Dec. 4, 2020.
A man pulls up to drop off mail at the mailboxes at the Portland Post Office in Portland, Maine, on Dec. 4, 2020.

Maybe you've noticed the birthday card that arrived belatedly or the check in the mail that didn't pay your credit card quite on time. It's not your imagination. The mail has definitely gotten less speedy.

The U.S. Postal Service began slowing deliveries of first-class mail nationwide on Oct. 1.

The price of a stamp went up in August — from 55 cents to 58 cents — and additionally, temporary holiday price increases for packages and other mail are now in effect.

It all spells trouble for the agency, says Porter McConnell, co-founder of the Save the Post Office Coalition, an organization of progressive political and consumer groups.

People will use the Postal Service less, revenue will decline and then they'll need to make more cuts. So essentially, you're sending the post office into a death spiral.

"Every postal expert in the country and across the globe really knows that you don't slow down service and raise prices at the same time and expect customers to stick around," McConnell tells NPR. "People will use the Postal Service less, revenue will decline and then they'll need to make more cuts. So essentially, you're sending the post office into a death spiral."

It's already called 'snail mail'

The service cutbacks are especially concerning for rural America.

Tom Giessel, a wheat farmer in Larned, Kan., and a member of the Kansas Farmers Union, says everything from bees to baby chicks are shipped through the mail.

"We rely on the mail for a lot of things. I rely on it in my billing from my farm cooperative. They allow discounts if you pay within five days from receipt of the bill. And, you know, if they keep slowing the mail down, then I don't get it in time to get a discount," Giessel says.

The Postal Service says that 61% of first-class mail will not be affected by the slowdown, which is caused in part by the agency's decision to rely less on moving mail by air and more by ground transportation.

The Postal Service did not make anyone available for an interview for this story, but in a video on its website, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy defended the cutback, part of the Postal Service's Delivering for America plan, as necessary:

"We are in a big hole, right, we're in a big hole, we need to realize that we're in a big hole and we need to find our way out of it ... and basically we can't do all things at all costs and need to bring excellence into our operating practices."

The Postal Service lost $9.2 billion in fiscal 2020.

Kevin Yoder is a former Republican lawmaker who leads a new group called Keep US Posted, which is made up of mail users like greeting card companies and small newspapers. He calls this a "key moment" for the Postal Service.

"It's one of America's most trusted institutions that Americans rely on every single day in this country," Yoder says. "And this is an essential service that we think many of us have taken for granted, and it's facing challenges now and it needs our help."

One thing that would help, Yoder says, is for Congress to pass the Postal Service Reform Act, legislation that would eliminate the requirement the Postal Service prepay its retirees' health benefits, which would save the agency an estimated $46 billion over 10 years. The measure has bipartisan support but has not been approved by either chamber.

Some suggest postal banking, printing and copying

McConnell of the Save the Post Office Coalition says the Postal Service should also take advantage of its network of more than 31,000 post offices to increase its revenues.

"There are more post offices than McDonald's and Starbucks combined," she says. "We should be turning those post offices into a community hub. You can bring back postal banking. You can offer office services like printing, copying, faxing. You can do free Wi-Fi in the parking lot."

McConnell says the Postal Service doesn't "need to be apologizing for their presence in our communities."

In fact, the Postal Service has launched a very limited experiment in postal banking in the Washington-Baltimore area and the Bronx in New York City. Advocates say the agency needs to do more to increase its business without further cutting its services.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.