To mobilize and gauge member support for its own entitlement agenda, AARP launched “You’ve Earned a Say,” an online and town hall campaign to educate members about Social Security and Medicare’s fiscal realities and to test tolerance for reform. As part of this mobilization, AARP must rebuild lost trust and lost membership (nearly half a million) in the wake of accusations that it sold out Medicare to the Affordable Care Act. Based on observations at two recent California town halls, building an “age power” consensus must also transcend two key divisions: social class and political ideology. The format was the same in both the heavily Hispanic, working-class eastern L.A. suburb of Pico Rivera and in the predominantly Anglo, upper-middle-class San Diego suburb of Rancho Bernardo. PowerPoint presentations portrayed Medicare and Social Security’s features, funding sources and allocation of expenditures. But both the tone and types of responses at the two gatherings were very different.
These contrasting town halls pose a strategic dilemma for AARP: “Social justice” concerns favor insulating working-class seniors with minimal entitlement changes – perhaps through means-testing of benefits by income. Meanwhile, upper-middle-class seniors with employer-sponsored pensions and health insurance are more willing to consider major reforms, but might see indexing remedies as unfairly penalizing hard-earned achievement and careful retirement planning. What to do?
AARP initially rallied seniors with the somewhat self-righteous, individualistic slogan, “You’ve Earned It.” A more unifying theme might be found in AARP’s own organizational mantra, coined by its founder Ethel Percy Andrus: “What we do we do for all.” This slogan echoes her Greatest Generation’s spirit of E Pluribus Unum and national community so vital in achieving their proudest policy legacy: Medicare and Social Security. The New Deal and Great Society goals of strong government safety nets are still part of many AARP members’ generational DNA. Re-energizing those more cohesive traditions might moderate members’ differing class and ideological entitlement views – and could appeal to a battle-weary and polarized general electorate.