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The Forever Stamp is forever rising in price. How does the U.S. cost compare globally?

The U.S. market for domestic mail delivery is by far the largest in the world, and a recent report found its prices are very low compared to other developed countries. The U.S. Postal Service said this week that it wants to raise rates in July.
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The U.S. market for domestic mail delivery is by far the largest in the world, and a recent report found its prices are very low compared to other developed countries. The U.S. Postal Service said this week that it wants to raise rates in July.

The cost of a Forever postage stamp is poised to rise in July, under a U.S. Postal Service plan to boost the price of the first-class stamp to 73 cents from the current 68 cents — a price that was just raised in January.

The 5-cent increase would take effect on July 14. If it's approved by the Postal Regulatory Commission, it would be the sixth price hike since January 2021.

Despite the string of increases, the U.S. Postal Service Office of the Inspector General says a U.S. postage stamp remains a bargain in the global marketplace, citing much higher prices in Europe and other areas (more on that below).

The U.S. Postal Service has been criticized in recent years as it resorted to measures such as slowing down the mail in response to its financial problems. Last year, the Government Accountability Office credited the agency with making some improvements, but it added that USPS "should continue taking steps to restore its financial viability and Congress should consider additional changes to USPS's unsustainable business model."

Are U.S. stamps still a good deal?

The price of a first-class stamp is cheaper in the U.S. than many other developed countries, according to a recentranking by the USPS Office of the Inspector General, or OIG.

The office compared the U.S. to 30 other nations that were selected by country size and postal service revenue, as well as the ability to source reliable data. The list includes much of the European Union, along with countries such as Canada, Japan, Brazil and Russia.

In raw numbers, only four countries had cheaper stamps than the U.S. And while many postal services have raised prices in recent years, the U.S. increases were moderate compared to most nations in the sample.

"The price of a [USPS] stamp increased by 26 percent from June 2018 to June 2023 ($0.50 to $0.63)," the inspector general report states, "which is less than half of the average increase for our sample size (55 percent) during that period."

When the OIG adjusted its analysis for purchasing power parity — a currency conversion rate used to compare the relative affordability of goods in different countries — the U.S. had the lowest stamp price of the 31 postal services.

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Why do stamp prices keep going up?

You're not imagining it: Stamp prices have gone up more frequently, and by greater amounts. And inflation is only part of the story.

"The Postal Service increased the price of [first-class mail] 18 times since January 2000," according to the OIG report, "and has raised prices more frequently in recent years, increasing prices five times between January 2021 and January 2024."

The use of first-class mail, the Postal Service's main revenue driver, has long been in decline. In July 2007, the agency's volume of single-piece first class mail — things like bill payments, letters and cards — stood at 2.7 billion items. By June 2023, that volume had fallen by 68%, to 900 million.

That's not to say domestic first-class mail isn't profitable. In fiscal year 2022, its "cost coverage" topped 210%, "meaning its generated revenue was more than twice its attributable cost," according to the inspector general.

But the agency's costs have been rising. So while the cost of stamps was once largely linked to inflation, USPS now uses several criteria in its formula for raising prices, under rules that were eased in November 2020. The pricing equation now includes things like density: the Postal Service's need to deliver less mail — but to more addresses.

The rate hike also takes into account the agency's obligation to pay its retirees' pension and health benefits, an expense that is responsible for more of the new proposed rate hike than is inflation.

"This retirement rate authority is only available for 5 years," a USPS spokesperson told NPR, adding that 2024 "is the fourth year where the retirement authority would be utilized."

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So, why are U.S. stamps still cheaper than elsewhere?

One glaring reason is scale. The U.S. "is by far the largest market for the delivery of domestic mail," with the Postal Service "handling half of the world's domestic mail (50.2 percent) in 2021," according to the OIG.

While the USPS has seen a long-term decline in use of its main domestic mail product, the drop has been even sharper and more prolonged in other countries. So while the U.S. agency is seeing dramatic drops in volume, it's better off than Postal Services in many other nations.

And while inflation has put pressure on many economies around the world, some countries — and their postal customers — have felt it worse than others. In the case of the USPS, the "price of a stamp in the United States was 5 percentage points above the rising costs of goods and services from June 2018 to June 2023," the inspector general reported.

Among the other 30 countries in the sample, prices rose by an average of 31 percentage points over inflation in that timespan, according to the report.

Even with the USPS getting new authority to raise its rates a few years ago, the size of those hikes is governed by price caps like the ones mentioned above. But different countries have varying rules to their postage rate increases, meaning some could raise prices more frequently or in larger chunks than the USPS.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell
Bill Chappell is a writer, reporter and editor, and a leader on NPR's flagship digital news team. He has frequently contributed to NPR's audio and social media platforms, including hosting dozens of live shows online.