News Column

AARP in Turmoil Over Social Security's Future

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There are few easy answers when it comes to Social Security. And now one of the simpler questions appears to have gotten tougher.

Where does AARP stand on Social Security benefits?

"I knew that they were always claiming to be for no change in benefits. They've been upfront and always lobbying about that," said Jim Albrecht, a 66-year-old AARP member in Lenexa, Kan. "I would have said, 'Of course that's what their position is.'"

Albrecht would have known the answer, that is, until he read a recent Wall Street Journal article. Now, he and scores of other AARP members don't know.

The article said AARP's leadership and board had endured a wrenching debate and decided to drop the lobbying group's long-standing opposition to benefit cuts as part of a revamp of Social Security. It said the group had concluded that changes were inevitable, that they would have to affect benefits and that AARP needed to be involved to minimize the pain.

Social Security's future has come under increasing debate in part because population changes have reduced sharply the number of workers paying into the program relative to the number of retirees and others receiving benefits.

The Journal's report, which relied heavily on AARP policy chief John Rother, said the policy change had not been revealed to AARP members.

AARP, with 37 million members age 50 and older, has long been a leading voice in Social Security policy matters. For example, it's opposed efforts to divert some of the program's funding into private investment accounts.

And its financial girth -- including $1.3 billion in revenues last year from dues, contributions, insurance royalties and other sources -- ensures its voice is heard on many issues in Washington.

A dramatic shift in the group's policy toward benefit cuts could be critical in reshaping Social Security.

AARP, however, has called The Journal's article and other media coverage of the matter "inaccurate" and "misleading."

An online post by A. Barry Rand, CEO of the Washington-based group, said it had not changed its position on Social Security, "and, as we have for decades, we will continue to protect this bedrock of lifetime financial security for all generations of Americans."

Right now that means putting Social Security off-limits in the intensifying debate in Washington this week about cutting the deficit. Only later, said another senior AARP official, will the group engage debate about Social Security's long-term future.

"That debate, quite frankly, really hasn't started," said David Certner, AARP's legislative policy director.

Betsy Frick is unimpressed. The 70-year-old from the St. Louis area said she's done with AARP and will not renew her membership that ran out in April.

"I feel betrayed," she said.

Frick hadn't seen The Wall Street Journal. But a similar report from The New York Times that ran in her local newspaper left her hopping mad.

"I jumped up and down and screamed in anger," Frick said.

Frick said she stewed, whined to some friends and then vented by posting a comment to Rand's online response. She wasn't alone.

Rand's post has drawn more than 100 anonymous and overwhelmingly unhappy comments on the organization's website. Many posters threatened to leave the group if The Journal's report was true.

"Just what are you people at the higher levels of AARP thinking about, surely it is not those of us on Social Security," read a comment posted from Goose Creek, S.C.

"This is such a bitter disappointment for me," read one from Fort Worth, Texas.

From Rindge, N.H.: "I don't think this blog is a sufficient response to Rand's apparent betrayal of AARP members."

Although Rand was taken to task, posters saved their most pointed attacks for Rother, the AARP's policy chief and principal voice in the news reports.

The Journal reported that Rother had been the "prime mover" behind the change. The New York Times said Rother explained the new policy as not so much a major change but a reflection of the political and financial realities facing Social Security and the nation.

"There's a simple way to send a signal that AARP is not going to abandon seniors to the wolves. Fire John Rother. Nothing less will do," said a comment on the AARP website posted from Nashua, N.H.

AARP spokeswoman Mary Liz Burns said the group would not comment on Rother's status.

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 Obama's campaign for health care legislation, which The Journal report said had cost AARP 300,000 members.

Certner said the recent media coverage hadn't caused a noticeable jump in the number of phone calls that AARP's call centers received.

"Generally speaking, the reaction from our membership has been minimal over the last couple of weeks' statements," Certner said.

But 37 million people are hardly going to be unanimous about anything.

A few online posts shared the view of former AARP member John B. Woods, an 83-year-old Leawood, Kan., resident who quit when AARP backed Obama's health care plans.

"It seemed like they were not interested in solving the problems we seniors are causing," Woods said.

Woods said the AARP stand as laid out in The Wall Street Journal was the only way the group should look at Social Security. He doubts the retirement benefits program can survive unchanged and was confused by Rand's post after the media publicity. Others who were shocked by the evident shift in policy were comforted by what they consider AARP's moves since then to back off.

For example, Missouri members received an AARP postcard in the mail June 30. It urged them to call Sen. Claire McCaskill about keeping Social Security cuts out of the current debate to reduce the federal deficit. It called for cutting wasteful federal spending -- an AARP television spot mentions treadmills for shrimp and pickle technology -- rather than Social Security benefits.

"They're trying to protect their backsides with this ... to save their reputation after this fiasco," said Martin Walsh, 71, of Glendale, Mo.

Walsh has been an AARP member for about six years and buys supplemental health care insurance through the group. He's also secretary of the Missouri Alliance for Retired Americans, the state arm of the national alliance.

His conclusion is that AARP isn't going to accept cuts in Social Security benefits. He certainly isn't.

Neither is Dave Wilson, the president of AARP's Kansas group, who said the media coverage he saw "did not fit what I know to be AARP's stand."

"You don't cut it now, and you don't cut it in the future," Wilson said of AARP's position on Social Security benefits.

AARP is not backpedaling and hasn't changed its position, but it still has work to do on its policy about Social Security's long-term future, says Certner, the group's legislative policy chief who agreed to discuss the media coverage and AARP's policy.

Certner said the postcards, TV spots and other AARP messages are aimed at protecting Social Security during the current debate in Washington over cutting the deficit. He said that's the national debate under way and the only one that matters.

"We have been extremely adamant that there should be no Social Security cuts as part of that debate, and no cuts to Medicare beneficiaries as well," Certner said.

AARP's position, which Certner and some members recited, is that Social Security is separately funded, apart from the federal budget, didn't cause the federal deficit, and shouldn't be called on to help reduce the deficit.

Certner had expected a different debate this summer, one that looks at Social Security's long-term future and "the financing gap it will experience roughly 25 years from now."

This debate is coming, he said, but discussions about it now will only confuse the group's efforts to keep Social Security out of the deficit battles going on.

Kim Wright agreed. She's a spokeswoman for the National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare, an advocacy group in Washington.

Wright said The Journal report pretty much captured what her organization saw as AARP's views on benefits' role in Social Security's long-term financial solvency. It was the timing of the article that hurt.

"It wasn't huge news in the fact that they said it. It was huge news in the fact of the timing, when they choose to do that," Wright said. "You don't talk to The Wall Street Journal in the midst of very serious negotiations that could target the program."

Certner said AARP leaders had certainly discussed Social Security's long-term future, given that these issues have been around for a long time.

But he contradicted the reports that AARP had held its debate and come to a new policy position, accepting some benefits cuts as part of the future of Social Security.

"We will not make that decision until we have brought this out to our members and the American public," he said.

Certner said AARP's leadership had looked at others' proposals on Social Security's long-term health, including many that include deep cuts to benefits, and planned to take those options to its members. Those sessions, he said, would not be about delivering AARP's position but on showing members what some in Washington want to do.

They'll be about getting feedback from members "so we can amplify their voice in Washington," Certner said.

Bill Finkle, a retired steelworker in Kansas City, Mo., figures AARP's crews can stay home.

"I don't think there even should be a second debate," Finkle said. "Leave it alone. It ain't broke."

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