WASHINGTON — The U.S. Postal Service has quietly begun offering a handful of new or expanded financial services in four cities, a potential first step toward a return to postal banking, which advocates say could help rescue the agency's finances and assist millions of people who have limited or no access to the banking system.

Tatiana Roy, a spokesperson for the Postal Service, said in an email that the pilot program — a collaboration between the Postal Service and the American Postal Workers Union — began Sept. 13 and that it aligns with the goals set out in the 10-year plan the Postal Service announced in May.

Postal banking was not explicitly called for in the plan, which Roy said would help the agency "achieve financial sustainability and service excellence," but it is a longtime desire of progressive politicians and advocates whose attempts to push it through Congress in recent years have been met with little success. It would require an act of Congress to re-establish postal banking beyond the limited services the Postal Service is beginning to test, but the pilot program could act as a proof of concept.

New services include check cashing, bill paying, ATM access, expanded and improved money orders and expanded wire transfers. Select Postal Service locations in Washington, D.C.; Falls Church, Virginia; Baltimore; and the Bronx, New York, are participating. 

Mark Dimondstein, the president of the American Postal Workers Union, said the test run was "a small step in a very positive direction." 

“We view expanded services as a win for the people of the country, a win for the Postal Service itself, because it will bring in new revenue, and, of course, a win for the postal workers who are extremely dedicated to the mission," Dimondstein said in a phone interview.

Check cashing is the biggest change in services the Postal Service provides. Customers can use payroll or business checks to buy single-use gift cards worth up to $500. Checks larger than $500 will not be accepted.

Many people do not have easy access to banks, but most can find a post office. Sixty-nine percent of U.S. census tracts with post office retail locations — representing 60 million people — do not have community bank branches, according to a study published in May by the University of Michigan. 

A lack of access, the costs associated with banking and a distrust of the banking system also have discouraged some people from using banks, leaving them out of the system entirely. 

About 8.4 million households, or 6.5 percent of households in the U.S., are "unbanked," according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., and 18.7 percent of U.S. households (24.2 million) are "underbanked" — meaning they may have checking or savings accounts but also use financial products and services outside the banking system, such as payday lenders. 

“It’s a case of market failure where the banking industry is not interested in serving these people because they’re not profitable enough and where the Postal Service, because it is a government service, can step in and help with that market failure and ensure those services are available," said Christopher Shaw, a historian who wrote the books “Money, Power, and the People: The American Struggle to Make Banking Democratic” and “Preserving the People’s Post Office.”

With 1 in 4 American households unbanked or underbanked, advocates for postal banking see a huge opportunity for the Postal Service to provide access to an essential financial system while bolstering its own economic position.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., hailed the pilot program and said that it should encourage Congress to pass her bill that would bring back postal banking in full and "generate as much as $9 billion per year for the USPS, helping to shore up its finances." 

“This is a great first step toward creating a postal bank,” Gillibrand said in a statement on Monday. “While the products it will offer are not as expansive as those contained in my legislation, the Postal Banking Act, a pilot program will demonstrate the value to these communities, and show that the USPS can effectively service underbanked urban and rural communities."

There are critics and skeptics, however. 

Paul Merski, the vice president for congressional relations and strategy for Independent Community Bankers of America, a trade group for small banks, emphasized that the Postal Service has not provided anything beyond a few simple financial services in nearly 55 years. 

“This is just a bad idea that doesn’t seem to want to go away,” Merski said. “The post office is having trouble financially keeping up with just the delivery of mail and losing billions of dollars year after year for over a decade now. You should not have a repurposing of the post office to do financial services — financial services have never been more complex. The Postal Service is in no way, shape or form equipped to compete in the financial services space.”

Postal banking was once a popular option for lower-income people after Congress passed legislation to establish the Postal Savings System in 1910. It aimed to encourage working people and immigrants to use the banking system while generating enough money to pay for itself. 

The program started in January 1911, and by 1947 deposits in the system had peaked at $3.4 billion. In the 1960s, deposits declined to $416 million as more consumers turned to banks after they raised their interest rates and began providing further guarantees similar to those offered by the federal government. In 1967, the Postal Service began to phase out the program.

A report from the Postal Service Office of Inspector General in 2014 advocated for the Postal Service to return to some form of postal banking and said that “by improving existing financial services and expanding into adjacent products, the Postal Service could generate $1.1 billion in annual revenue after a 5-year ramp up.”

Some fear, however, that Postmaster General Louis DeJoy is not fully backing the pilot program and may undermine efforts to expand it further. Many advocates of the Postal Service have expressed a lack of faith in DeJoy, citing his close ties to former President Donald Trump and the Republican donor class, as well as his efforts to make the Postal Service more business-oriented.

Porter McConnell, co-founder of the Save the Post Office Coalition, took issue with the small size of the pilot program and the decision to test it only in major urban areas, rather than the rural communities most lacking in such services. 

“He is doing the least he can do,” McConnell said of DeJoy. “What would it look like if there was a forward-looking postmaster general who was really strategic about new sources of revenue, serving new populations and building a post office into the community hub that it should be for the 21st century? If you think about that, this all is a little less exciting.”

Still, a new, more permanent postal banking program is outside the postmaster general's purview. 

Democrats in the Senate and the House — including progressives Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. — have recently pushed legislation that would re-establish postal banking. Larger pilot programs have also been in recent appropriations bills. 

“To get something expansive and permanent, Congress really has to get involved and make it happen,” said Shaw, the historian.

Julie Tsirkin reported from Washington, and Phil McCausland reported from New York.

CORRECTION (Oct. 4, 11:02 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the number of post office locations that are currently offering expanded financial services as part of a four-city pilot program. It’s a select number of locations in those four cities, not all locations.

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