I’m a senior. And I’m mad. In fact, I am resigning from the AARP.
The America Association of Retired People has about 38 million members and is one of the biggest, most influential lobbies in Washington. It has done many good things for older Americans, but in some important ways it is just plain wrong — selfish and guilty of intergenerational injustice.
As Fareed Zakaria pointed out in a 2011 column in Time, the federal government spends about $4 on every senior over 65 and only $1 on every child under 18. “That is a statement about our priorities,” Zakaria rightly says, “favoring consumption over investment, the present over the future, ourselves over our children.” Partly as a result the poverty rate for children (22 percent) is much higher than that for seniors (9.7 percent).
That is not to say we should abolish or privatize Social Security (pensions for seniors) or Medicare (health care for seniors). Both are highly effective government programs. Without Social Security, about one-half of all seniors today would fall below the poverty line. Because of Social Security, less than 10 percent of seniors are poor. Before Medicare began in 1965, more than half of all seniors lacked health insurance. Today, almost all enjoy this security. Those are wonderful results from highly successful programs. (See my Fixing the Moral Deficit: A Balanced Way to Balance the Budget for more details.)
But there are serious problems that must be faced. We have a large, unsustainable federal budget deficit. If we continue current patterns, by 2025 all federal income will be needed simply to pay for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid (healthcare for poor Americans) and interests on the National debt!
So we must make some changes. We need both tax increases and cuts in expenditures. That means most of us will have to sacrifice some (I say most because we should not balance the budget by cutting effective programs for poor Americans).
But the AARP is using its huge lobbying muscle to oppose reasonable changes in Social Security and Medicare.
The AARP opposes increases in the modest payments seniors make for their Medicare even for seniors with annual incomes over $85,000. We certainly should not increase the monthly Medicare payments for lower income Americans, but people with annual income of $85,000 can afford another $50 or $100 a month. The AARP says: No way!
The AARP opposes a reasonable proposal to discourage unnecessary use of doctor visits and medical tests by seniors. Medicare does not cover all medical costs for seniors. So seniors buy “Medigap” insurance to cover the uncovered costs. That is good up to a point, but when Medigap covers all the additional costs, too many seniors use medical services unnecessarily because it costs them nothing. So reformers propose a change that would require seniors (depending on their income) to pay some initial deductible and then a co-payment to discourage unnecessary usage of services. The AARP says: No way!
Why? One reason is that the AARP makes tens of millions of dollars by endorsing insurance companies selling Medigap.
The AARP opposes modest cuts in Social Security payments even for seniors with large additional income. Social Security payments for lower income Americans should be increased. But rich seniors with large additional income could easily afford a modest cut in their Social Security income. The AARP says: No way!
No matter how much other income seniors receive, part of their Social Security income is tax-free. Is there any reason why a senior with a total income (Social Security plus other income) of $100,000 should not pay income tax on all of their Social Security income? The AARP says: No way!
There are other issues too. But you get the picture. The AARP is a selfish lobby demanding things for seniors even though modest sacrifices would help us reduce the deficit and enable us to spend more on crucial things like better education for our children. In fact, John Rother (long-time chief lobbyist for the AARP) suggested that in 2011 and promptly lost his job. Selfish seniors protested loudly and the AARP quickly backpedalled
Seniors like that are saying: “Ill keep everything I have. Let the children suffer. Let my grandchildren pay my bills.” That is intergenerational injustice. It is time for seniors who care about justice to send the AARP a message: No way! We reject that selfishness. We are ready to make some sacrifices for our children and grandchildren.
I’m resigning from the AARP until they change. I hope every senior who cares about intergenerational justice will do the same.
Ron Sider is president of Evangelicals for Social Action, a professor and director of the Sider Center on Ministry and Public Policy at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a member of the Red Letter Christians.