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.
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.