GEORGE KENNEDY: AARP should help shape future of Social Security, Medicare

Thursday, March 29, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:44 p.m. CDT, Thursday, March 29, 2012

Saturday morning, there was a considerably different crowd than you’ll usually encounter at Ragtag Cinema. Not to put too fine a point on it, but we were a gaggle of geezers.

We weren’t there to watch a movie, though there were a couple of short videos. No, this was, as the people in charge kept assuring us, the start of something big. We were there, 35 of us, to have our say on two topics that are more important than most of what’s being discussed so far in the presidential campaign.


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Those are Social Security and Medicare.

Like nearly everybody in the theater that day, I’m a beneficiary of both. I’m also a member of AARP, the organization that sponsored the session. I went hoping to learn something. I left mildly disappointed but hopeful.

As you know, both Social Security and Medicare face funding shortfalls. Medicare’s problem is more urgent. Its trust fund will likely run short in a dozen years or so. Social Security is predicted to be able to pay full benefits for about another 25 years. Then, if no changes are made, about 75 percent of promised benefits could be continued. That assumes, of course, that the federal Treasury repays the billions of dollars it has borrowed from the Social Security trust fund.

Saturday’s session was billed as the first step in a lengthy process that will culminate in AARP taking a nonpartisan position on what should be done to preserve and strengthen both those programs.

It seems to me that already enough experts have suggested plausible remedies for Social Security that AARP’s leaders are insisting on reinventing the wheel. Lift the cap on taxable salaries, tweak the age for full retirement, enroll all workers, and Social Security’s shortfall disappears, doesn’t it? The Simpson-Bowles commission came up with one set of remedies that mainly made sense. The Center for American Progress, a more liberal outfit, has another. You can find them and others easily enough on the Internet.

Still, if there’s going to be an AARP plan, I guess gatherings like Saturday’s are as good a starting point as any. Similar “You’ve Earned a Say” meetings were held in Springfield, Kansas City and St. Louis. When I asked about the next step, Norma Collins, the “advocacy director” in AARP’s state office, replied – a little vaguely, I thought – that there will probably be more of these sessions and maybe a scientific survey of the membership before the organization reaches recommendations.

No recommendations emerged Saturday. Instead, we got a recitation of basic information and a brief questionnaire. We were reminded, for instance, that only 64 percent of Social Security recipients are retirees. Benefits also go to people with disabilities, spouses and widows and orphaned children. Social Security makes up at least half the income for most recipients and 90 percent or more for a quarter of them.

The average benefit is only $14,700 a year.

As for Medicare, the number of beneficiaries is predicted to double by 2030. Although it has much lower administrative expenses (about 2 percent versus 10 percent to 20 percent for private insurance), its costs are still rising at an unsustainable rate. Even with Medicare, a typical senior citizen spends about 20 percent of annual income on health care.

I don’t think I was the only one who left Saturday a little frustrated that the organization that should be a major player in influencing the future of these programs is only now starting what Collins described as “a very long effort.”

Better late than never, I suppose.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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Ellis Smith March 29, 2012 | 6:32 a.m.

First, anyone posting on this topic SHOULD, as George has done, state whether or not they're an AARP member before they comment. I am one.

That said, I think we must ask ourselves a very logical question: Does the future of this country really belong to those who are now past 60 years of age? Maybe, but I'm not sure I can even clearly remember when I was 60, and I definitely don't delude myself into thinking I'll live forever. (I don't want to live forever - even if I could.)

We, United States, UK, Europe, Japan - and even, in the future, China* - face situations where geriatrics will form a progressively larger portion of our national populations. Those folks may indeed have wisdom** to pass on to younger citizens, but for us to plan their future? I don't think so.

*- China's "one child" policy guarantees that will happen.

**- Some of us would like to BELIEVE we've accumulated some measure of wisdom over a lifetime.

(Report Comment)
Allan Sharrock March 29, 2012 | 6:52 a.m.

At least somebody is telling the truth on the funding situation. While I generally never agree with George philosophically I am glad he isn't like some commentators and spinning this issue. Tough choices will have to be made. However, I am willing to bet that people my age and younger won't be the ones that are considered or for that matter included in the conversation. Apathy among young people is unfortunately growing and we have nobody to blame but ourselves when we get nothing and will have to pay everything in the end.

(Report Comment)
Cecil Caulkins March 29, 2012 | 7:08 a.m.

I'm an AARP member, long since on both Social Security and Medicare. Over the years, there have been many plans put forward to fix these programs (certainly to fix SS). The problem wasn't a dearth of plans, but rather a congressional unwillingness to get near these plans (much the way Superman tries to avoid Krypton). Tom Eagleton and Jack Danforth described SS as the third rail in American politics. At this point, almost ANY action would be better than what we have, which seems to be prolonged fretting and dithering about a grim day of reckoning with no actual efforts by any elected officials to do something about it. I suspect that, if this continues, it won't much matter what AARP or anyone else does. Come on, Congress, get into the game!

(Report Comment)
frank christian March 29, 2012 | 9:39 a.m.

Once, in the bathroom of a vacation rental, I read an editorial in the AARP, Modern Maturity magazine, about the future of SS. It, as is the case here, never addressed the basic problem with the Act. No plan is ever going to be addressed as long as Democrats in control are depended upon to do it. "The Simpson-Bowles commission came up with one set of remedies that mainly made sense." You should have added "but, was ignored by Obama and D's of both houses." I believe that Tip O'Neill (after a nation-wide Democratic outcry condemning R. Reagan for even forming a bi-partisan committee to look at SS) was the last Democrat to assist in changes to SS. Reagan, Fed Chair and O'Neill raised the worker paid premiums. More money for Congress to "borrow".

"a grim day of reckoning with no actual efforts by any elected officials to do something about it.", is not true. 1994 Republicans balanced the Budget without taking SS funds and announced publicly when they were forced to borrow for Afghan war. Rep. Ryan states that SS funds are not in Republican plans for funding of Federal gov't. They have outlined adjustments they will necessarily make for solvency. It is Democrats crying "Don't touch my SS!, or Medicare!" Depending upon which plan is discussed. As we all know there are many around here preferring that Republicans are not ever given the chance.

In regard to the trillions taken from SS, to assure members that everything is OK, AARP last sentence in its article was: "If this money is needed, it will be repaid."

Not a word about where the U.S. Congress would obtain that money. I'm a recipient of SS and Medicare. Have you guessed whether or not I'm an AARP member?

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith March 29, 2012 | 12:18 p.m.

"Not a word about how the U. S. Congress would obtain that money." Hell, Congress doesn't worry about where to find money! We can always print more. But if they were to look at what's printed upon those paper bills that progressively buy less and less at home or abroad they'd find it says "United States [plural] of America," not "United State [singular] of America."

Ain't quasi-Socialism wonderful?

"The problem with Socialism is that eventually you run out of other people's money to spend." - Margaret Thatcher

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro March 29, 2012 | 2:01 p.m.

("American Seniors have an Alternative to AARP
August 18, 2009
By Allen Wilson 25 comments

Thousands of American seniors are tearing up their AARP cards and canceling their memberships. Good for them! But is there an alternative to AARP?")

(Report Comment)

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