The American Association of Retired People (AARP) was founded in 1958 to further the political, economic, and social needs of Americans 50 and older. The association was established to present “collective purpose, collective voice and the collective power of the 50 and over population to change the market based on their needs.”
One of the many political battles the AARP has fought over the years has been in defending Social Security, itself established in the US in 1935 after over a half-century of political and economic upheavals. Social Security has, arguably, been the most successful government program that did not involve war. As Paul Krugman noted last year on Social Security’s 50th birthday, “It should have been a joyous occasion, a time to celebrate a program that has brought dignity and decency to the lives of older Americans. But the program is under attack, with some Democrats as well as nearly all Republicans joining the assault.” (quoted from The New York Times, 15 August 2010)
AARP has resisted the assault. Until it didn’t. And recently it might resist again.
As Krugman explains in his piece in The Times, with clarity and with facts, Social Security has always been solvent and remains solvent (unlike almost any other federal program). True, that solvency will be tested as Baby Boomers continue to move into retirement over the next fifteen-odd years. Nevertheless, what makes the argument so heated now (and likely a source of much heat and little light as the presidential election of 2012 looms ever larger) is that ideologues on the right want to end it simply because it is a government program (and use the money to support government programs more likely to benefit them personally).
The AARP stressed its commitment to saving Social Security as it is for most of the early skirmishes between Democrats and a resurgent, Tea-Party driven, Republican Party. But in recent days, AARP has presented a willingness to discuss changes. Such willingness has been met with much bewilderment and anger from its constituents and forced AARP leadership to explain and modify its position. “According to David Certner, AARP’s legislative director, AARP has not settled on whether it supports specific cuts to benefits but favors raising the Social Security wage cap to bring in more tax revenue.” (Quoted from a news bulletin from The Assisted Living Federation of America)
This week, AARP has been trying to reassert its position as a defender of Social Security for its members (More precisely: for its future members. One of the many shams Krugman points out about the Republican attack on the program is that the Republicans want to end it later, when younger voters – who tend to vote Democratic – would be moving toward eligibility. No belt-tightening for today’s Republican supporters.)
Nevertheless, as Politico reports: “But the damage had been done: It’s exposed divisions within the Democratic Party over whether to take on Social Security with a Democratic president in the White House, and it gave Republicans new ammunition to push entitlement reforms in talks over slashing the deficit.
“AARP is still in damage control four days later [as of 21 June], and its move angered the liberal base and prompted head-scratching among Democrats on Capitol Hill since the organization had effectively brought an issue — long considered the third rail of politics — back into the raging debate over budget cutting.”
As of this posting, thethe need to pressure Congress to find other ways to balance the budget. So far, that argument is not carrying the day, at least among most of the Republican candidates running for the presidency. Sure, it would be easy to dismiss this debate as electoral grandstanding, but the budget deficit is real and all sides agree it must be addressed. How it will be addressed is the sticking point, and we should keep an eye on AARP’s leadership to see what else they might say in this issue over the next 18-plus months.