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The Pony Express is slowing down. The U.S. Postal Service has begun to slow some first-class mail deliveries as part of a plan to save money. It lost $9 billion just last year. But critics say this cost-savings measure will hurt consumers and businesses and drive more business away. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Maybe it was the birthday card that arrived belatedly or the check in the mail that didn't pay your credit card quite on time. The mail has definitely gotten less speedy. The Postal Service began slowing deliveries of first-class mail nationwide last week. That, combined with a hike in postage rates in August, spells trouble for the agency, says Porter McConnell.
PORTER MCCONNELL: 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.
NAYLOR: McConnell is co-founder of the Save the Post Office Coalition, an organization of progressive political and consumer groups.
MCCONNELL: 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.
NAYLOR: The service cutbacks are especially concerning for rural America.
TOM GIESSEL: I'm seeding my winter wheat crop, which will be harvested next June.
NAYLOR: Tom Giessel is a farmer in Larned, Kan. We caught up with him on his tractor in the midst of planting season. Giessel is with the Kansas Farmers Union and says everything from bees to baby chicks are shipped through the mail.
GIESSEL: We rely on the mail for a lot of things. I rely on it in my billing for 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 on mine if I so choose to pay that way.
NAYLOR: The Postal Service says with precision that 61% of first-class mail is not being 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, but in a video on its website, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy defended the cutback as necessary.
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LOUIS DEJOY: We are in a big hole, right? There's something irregular. 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.
NAYLOR: Kevin Yoder is a former GOP congressman who leads a new group, Keep US Posted, comprised of mail users, including greeting card companies like Hallmark and small newspapers. He says it's a key moment for the Postal Service.
KEVIN YODER: It's one of America's most trusted institutions that Americans rely on every single day in this country. 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.
NAYLOR: Yoder is hopeful that Congress will pass 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. Porter McConnell says the Postal Service should also take advantage of its network of more than 31,000 post offices to increase its revenues, providing services like postal banking, printing and free Wi-Fi.
MCCONNELL: The Postal Service is uniquely positioned to do all this. They don't need to be apologizing for their presence in our communities.
NAYLOR: In fact, the Postal Service has launched a very limited experiment in postal banking in the Washington-Baltimore area and the Bronx. Advocates say the agency needs to do more to increase its business without further cutting its services.
Brian Naylor, NPR News.
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