Take Five: AARP president says members have electoral clout -- and diverse opinions
Robert Romasco, president of AARP, says that older Americans will continue to show their voting clout this November, but added that his 35 million-plus members aren’t in monolithic agreement, even when it comes to Social Security and Medicare.
AARP members cut across many demographic categories -- ethnic, geographic, religious, you name it -- but since all are 50 or older they share at least one overriding concern: financial security. He said that about one-third of AARP members are under 65, and about 40 percent are still working.
“Whether you’re trying to hold on at age 88, or you don’t know where your next paycheck is coming at age 58, we’re trying to make sure that we understand those needs and respond as best as we can through our array of policies, products, advocacy and the work we do with our foundation,” Romasco said during a stop in St. Louis last week.
The age diversity is reflected in the organization’s decision in 1999 to change its name from the American Association of Retired Persons to simply AARP, which Romasco good-naturedly insists be pronounced as “A-A-R-P” and not “arp.”
He recognizes that joining AARP can be a tough sell with the newly eligible.
“Most 50 year olds -- when that membership envelope arrives in their mailbox, it’s not a happy moment for them," he said, smiling. “We believe our array of services are worth it. We’re trying to make sure people understand that we’re about people over 50, which is not necessarily just retirees. That’s a big deal. This world is changed and we have to meet the needs of people whose lives have changed. The conventional wisdom of you’ll retire when you’re 65 and go to Florida and have a nice life, I would say that’s changed a lot. People’s needs are different.”
AARP’s latest initiative -- "Work Reimagined”-- partners with LinkedIn and is aimed at helping Americans over age 50, who lost their jobs in the down economy, find new employment opportunties.
AARP and Missouri
749,166: Missourians who belong to AARP
1.1 million: Residents who are Social Security beneficiaries
992,968: Residents who are Medicare beneficiaries
Source: AARP state fact sheet
Romasco was in Washington, Mo., as part of AARP’s "You’ve Earned a Say” campaign, which he describes as a national conversation about policy options proposed by various sources regarding Social Security and Medicare. Romasco said that AARP has not taken an official stance on any of the options.
“We’re still looking through them. They’re complicated. It’s like a Rubik’s Cube: If you do this, you get a second-order effect, third-order effect and so forth," he said. “We went through this kind of rigorous policy analysis as a way of thinking about the ACA [Affordable Care Act]. That was not a slam-dunk kind of thing. There were things we thought should be in the legislation. The board wrestled with this. In the end we felt that on balance the majority of people would be benefited."
Critics have taken AARP to task in recent years, accusing the organization of taking stances on Social Security and health care that they said did not represent the best interests of its membership.
Romasco says the “You’ve Earned a Say” campaign is all about showing respect for members by listening to them. He acknowledged that AARP’s decision to support the health-care act affected membership.
“Membership growth was halted during the ACA firestorm, but it’s been growing a little over the last year and a half. It’s north of 35 million -- closer to 37 million members," he said.
Here are more excerpts from the Beacon’s interview.
What do you hope to accomplish with the “You’ve Earned a Say” initiative regarding Social Security and Medicare?
Romasco: The first principle is that the people who are affected by these programs -- who’ve paid into these programs -- should be involved in the conversation about these programs. These programs have been talked about in Washington in primarily a budget context: “We can’t afford it. We have to cut them.”
These programs are earned benefits, and they’ve been talked about in a budget-balancing discussion to solve the math problem. But what are the impacts on people if you adjust the programs in a certain way? What happens? Not only what happens financially for the country, but what happens to beneficiaries and are those reasonable consequences?
We want to present some of the most prominent policy options. These are not necessarily ours. They’re the ones you can read about in any of the national media. We have people from the Heritage Foundation and the Brookings Institution and similar think tanks comment. These are the arguments -- what do you think?
There are pluses and minuses to each [alternative]. There is no silver bullet. These are complicated and we want to make sure that the impact on people, not only today but long term, is understood. Ultimately, we have to answer the fundamental question: What kind of country do we want? What can we afford? What do we want to pay for?
We’ve also had people fill out an online questionnaire. The first one was basically a general one in terms of whether they see these programs as in trouble or not. Whether they need to be changed or not. And whether or not they think their opinion will matter. Nationally, somewhere between 45 and 50 percent say that we appreciate having an impact, but we don’t think anybody’s going to listen.
After listening to your members, then what?
Romasco: The commitment we’re making to our members is that we’ll make sure your opinions and reactions are brought to the people who are in the policy seats in Washington.
This is fundamentally saying that we respect our members, as opposed to “Let me scare you with a picture of so-and-so being thrown off the cliff or some evil person.” We re going to see $4 billion worth of communications [about the November election]. And we’re trying to help people who rely on us for the facts.
We think that’s critical because it will dovetail with our voter education effort in the fall, which we always do. Depending on how things go -- and I don’t have a crystal ball -- these two programs [Social Security and Medicare] will be dealt with over the next 12 months, whether in the presidential election or sometime next year.
What are older Americans telling you about these options? Some of these options would cut their Social Security or Medicare benefits.
Romasco: There are so many myths. There is a set of people who think that older Americans are greedy geezers, and that’s an unfair characterization. These programs are vital to these people.
Take Social Security, as an example. Two-thirds of Social Security beneficiaries depend on Social Security for at least half of their income. For a quarter of beneficiaries, it’s 90 percent of their income. If you talk to Medicare beneficiaries, it is such a vital program and anything that comes near that immediately risks a high degree of passionate concern.
Having said that, there is a significant amount of concern about whether these programs are going to be there for their kids. The second question I always get is “What about our kids?” There is not a small amount people who are concerned about the deficit.
Older Americans are citizens. These programs are vital to them. The idea that they may be diminished or done away with is important, but it’s not the only concern. So you will get people who are open-minded, rather than “don’t touch my benefit at all.” It’s not 100 to zero. At the same time, a lot depends on how much they understand.
Why should people believe AARP?
Romasco: We have a high degree of trust, and we’re trying to build on that. There are people out there who don’t agree with us, but I think one thing that has been refreshing is [the response] when people understand that we’re presenting options and both sides of the argument. These are not our opinions. These are options that have been widely discussed, and they have at least some credibility of consideration.
I don’t think I could get 35 million people to agree on what time of day it is. No matter what we do, 20 percent of the members will be angry with us. If we support something, don’t support it or don’t take a position. You’ll find people who will say, “I don’t think that was the right thing for you to do.’’
Having said that, we do so many things -- we advocate, clearly. But we also have a wide array of services. Our foundation did tax returns for free for 2 million people last year. We’ve launched a drive to address senior hunger and raised about $20 million to help figure out solutions. We have about 9 million people who are in the senior category who are either in or on the edge of hunger.
Reportedly thousands of members cut up their membership cards and mailed them back to show their disagreement with AARP’s support of the health-care act.
Romasco: There were, but at the same time we had people signing up. There is no question that there were people who were angry with us. There were people on the radio who were yelling, “How dare they do this?” They were characterizing the legislation in certain ways that perhaps weren’t as accurate as they should be.
But in the end our view is nonpartisan, about people, and what’s the right policy. And there’s a very big difference between nonpartisan and bipartisan. This isn’t about running from one side of the room to the other to make everybody happy. This is about what makes the most sense for our members and the people we represent. Hopefully, we can find common ground and that people from a variety of political views will be supportive of that and we can be influential in that.
In 2003-2004, we supported the prescription drug program. That was a Republican-sponsored, Republican-pushed benefit program, and many of the Democrats were not happy about that. Two years later, Republicans pushed privatization of Social Security [which AARP opposed]. One day we were their buddies; the next day we weren’t their buddies.