Will the AARP Support an Overhaul of Social Security?

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So, did they or didn’t they?

Did the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) – easily the country’s most influential seniors group – abandon its opposition to cutting Social Security benefits?

The question surfaced June 17, when the Wall Street Journal published a front-page article suggesting the AARP’s board had approved an effort driven by one of the organization’s policy chiefs, John Rother, to ride the increasingly dominant view in Washington: Social Security must be overhauled to remain solvent beyond 2036 – especially considering that the retired population is expected to grow dramatically and the number of workers contributing to the program will shrink.

According to the Journal, the AARP planned a series of town-hall meetings to articulate the organization’s apparently evolving view on ensuring Social Security solvency. The AARP had also severed ties with Strengthen Social Security, a coalition of some 300 disparate groups, including the National Organization for Women and the League of Rural Voters, that have vigorously opposed any attempt to cut Social Security.

Editorial pages and blogs pounced. Eric Kingson, Strengthening Social Security’s co-director, says the AARP’s apparent shift has “opened the floodgates to legitimizing that it’s OK to have cuts. It’s a betrayal.”

Within hours, the AARP’s chief executive, A. Barry Rand, denounced the Journal’s story with a statement, that read in part: “AARP is as committed as we’ve ever been to fighting to protect Social Security for today’s seniors and strengthening it for future generations.”

While that’s not exactly a Shermanesque denial, it does merit some parsing.

Remember that much for much of its history, the AARP has driven the treatment of Social Security as a sacred federal program. Social Security’s projected insolvency date, 2036, seemed so far away.  In recent years, however, AARP executives have been open to considering a restructuring of Social Security’s benefits program.  In 2008, for example, it published a report that suggested that Social Security benefits for the wealthy could be lowered, partly to reduce costs – but not so much that they become skeptical about investing in the program. The document also suggested considering raising from 62 years old the earliest age someone can be eligible to receive benefits. “We’ve been out there on this issue for some time,” says Bill Novelli, who served as the AARP’s chief executive from 2000 to 2009.

So does that mean the AARP is open to cutting Social Security benefits, if it’s in the nation’s interest? Not necessarily. The organization, rightly, wants to be a player in the conversation about Social Security’s future – especially if the program can be extricated from the escalating deficit debate. The apparent shift reflects an internal civil war, an acknowledgment that the long-held opposition to Social Security reform is unsustainable. It’s also about keeping the organization relevant to prospective members. Those members may well think, “Why would you join an organization in 20 years that stood in the way of reform and saving the system?” says Jonathan Cowan, president of Third Way, a liberal-leaning think tank. In the mid-1990s, when Cowan led protests outside the AARP’s Washington headquarters, he recalls being offered milk and cookies. So of the AARP’s apparent shift, he says: “This is a gigantic crack in the Berlin Wall on Social Security.”