Resigning from AARP

by Ron Sider

I'm a senior. And I'm mad. In fact, I am resigning from AARP.

AARP 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 an October 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 of this, 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 (healthcare for seniors). Both are highly effective government programs. Without Social Security, about 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 interest 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 AARP is using its huge lobbying muscle to oppose reasonable changes in Social Security and Medicare.

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. AARP says, "No way!"

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 copayment to discourage unnecessary usage of services. AARP says, "No way!"

Why? One reason is that AARP makes tens of millions of dollars by endorsing insurance companies selling Medigap.

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. 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? AARP says, "No way!"

There are other issues, too. But you get the picture. 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 (longtime chief lobbyist for AARP) suggested as much in 2011 and promptly lost his job.  Selfish seniors protested loudly, and AARP quickly backpedalled.

Seniors like that are saying, "I'll keep everything I have. Let the children suffer. Let my grandchildren pay my bills." That is intergenerational injustice. It is time for seniors like myself who care about justice to send AARP a similar message: "No way! We reject that selfishness. We are ready to make some sacrifices for our children and grandchildren."

I'm resigning from AARP until they change. I hope every senior who cares about intergenerational justice will do the same.

Please join me in sending a message to AARP and Washington.  I also hope that young people will talk to their grandparents about this. Ask Grandpa and Grandma whether they think spending four times more on a senior than on a young person is fair. Ask them to write to AARP and our politicians. It is time for an intergenerational dialogue on intergenerational justice.

Ron Sider is president of ESA and professor of theology/public policy at Palmer Seminary of Eastern University. His most recent book is Fixing the Moral Deficit: A Balanced Way to Balance the Budget.

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3 Responses

  1. Charles E. Comfort says:

    Whether the above comments make sense depends on an explanation of the 4-1 ratio of expenditures. Are expenditures for seniors unnecessarily inflated? Are expenditures for children unfairly kept low? What more should be given to children? What programs need to be added right now? If Ron wants to quit AARP, that's his business. To suggest that others do the same based on the limited information in his article appears to be premature, even silly.

  2. Marybeth Luing says:

    I have been an AARP member in the past, and have a renewal on my desk. I'll be shredding it as junk mail, after reading this. There is no reason those with plenty cannot look around and understand their responsibility to share excess to relieve the misery of others. There is no message, from cover to cover, in a religious book or an economics book, that suggests those who take everything are improving the lives of those left with nothing.

    The pretense of 'complicated economics' is just that–pretense to protect selfishness.

    The selfish grabbing of 'all I can get' will stop–historically it has always been stopped–but hopefully we are enlightened enough to bring a transition in economic balance with dignity and care for all–even the well-off–rather than with social upheaval and strife.

    Restoring economic balance and justice with violence is not needed; we can voluntarily do so–as was taught when Jubilee was called for by prophets and great teachers. THAT is the Good News!

  3. Steve Stanley says:

    I don't see why Ron's argument should portray seniors as selfishly taking away investments for children. AARP is only advocating for seniors. They are not trying to deprive younger generations. I also think that we should remember that the narrative of our "unsustainable national debt" is doing political work on behalf of those who want to limit investments for all Americans. It creates false choices. Our economy, our healthcare and our safety-net need smart investment rather than compulsive austerity.

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