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Sunday, July 10, 2011

AARP, Boomers, and Social Security

Our chapter on interest groups discusses AARP, formerly the American Association of Retired Persons. The group's issues are much in the news with the aging of the "baby boom" generation, the large cohort of Americans born between 1946 and 1964, the oldest of whom turn 65 this year. At its website, journalist Patrick J. Kiger talks to Frederick Lynch about his new book, One Nation Under AARP: The Fight Over Medicare, Social Security, and America's Future.
Do boomers and politicians consider AARP a policy advocate?

[Former senator] Alan Simpson, of course, has been the most visible foe of AARP all along. He's the one who says that the organization represents millions of people who are united only by their love of airline discounts.

I'm not agreeing with that, but he brings up one of the problems that AARP has in exercising leadership. It has a dual role. It's an organization that provides reasonably priced services, particularly insurance, which was the reason for its founding. But there's also the social entrepreneur and advocacy side.

There is confusion in the public mind as to what AARP is, and that's where some of the criticism comes from. Do they really care about us or are they just interested in selling us insurance?

What are your thoughts on that?

AARP can be both a service provider and a political spokesman and leader. People such as Simpson may perceive a conflict of interest, but in my research, I really didn't see that. When I talked to people at AARP who were doing research on the boomer generation, there never was any sign that they were concerned about how that would affect the insurance side or anything else.

AARP is unique, and I think this hybrid structure is actually part of the genius of AARP. It's a self-funding lobby.

But that does raise the charges of conflict of interest.

In the book, you make the case that AARP's biggest problem has been what you call "mission drift." Would you explain?

I don't think that AARP founder Ethel Percy Andrus ever envisioned in her wildest dreams that the organization would ever reach 40 million members. But AARP has become so successful and gotten so big that it's a challenge to maintain its identity.

There's a lot of talk at AARP about how it's an organization for all generations, for everybody who has a birthday. I understand where that's coming from, because they want to build consensus. And Andrus did have the mantra, "What we do, we do for all."

But at the end of the day, AARP has to be for seniors. Otherwise, why don't we rename it the American Association of Persons?
A Rasmussen survey measures opinions about the group:

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey shows that 52% of Likely U.S. Voters hold at least a somewhat favorable opinion of AARP, while 34% offer an unfavorable review. In November 2009, following AARP’s endorsement of the health care law, 53% viewed the organization favorably and 40% unfavorably.

The current numbers show 18% with a Very Favorable view of AARP and 15% with a Very Unfavorable opinion. Thirteen percent (13%) are undecided. (To see survey question wording, click here.)

Among seniors, 56% have a favorable opinion, while 40% say the opposite. Among those under 40, roughly one-in-four have no opinion one way or the other.

Sixty-five percent (65%) of Democrats and a plurality (48%) of voters not affiliated with either major party view the organization for older Americans favorably. Republicans are evenly divided. Most liberals (58%) and moderates (62%) like AARP; 48% of conservatives do not.

After recent reports that the group was going to modify its longstanding opposition to cutting Social Security benefits, a number of members protested loudly. In response, the group denied the reports. At the McClatchy newspapers, Mark Davis writes:

For some AARP members, reports about the group's apparent shift on Social Security benefits irritated long-standing sores they developed over the organization's previous actions.

Some had derided AARP's position during President George W. Bush's push for Medicare pharmaceutical benefits. Others blanched at its role in supporting President Barack Obama's campaign for health care legislation, which The Journal report said had cost AARP 300,000 members.