WASHINGTON ― Television viewers across the country have been treated to some scary advertisements about the future of Social Security.
“Our next president needs to take action on Social Security, or future generations could lose up to $10,000 a year,” the narrator intones, as ominous music plays in the background.
Viewers might be surprised to learn that the ad is from the AARP, the country’s largest seniors group and a longtime defender of social programs for older Americans. It’s part of the nonpartisan group’s election-focused “Take A Stand” campaign, launched last November to pressure candidates to spell out their plans for shoring up Social Security’s finances.
The “Take A Stand” initiative rankled progressive retirement security advocates virtually from the moment it started, because it focused on getting politicians to propose any detailed plan ― and didn’t distinguish between reform proposals that would cut benefits and those that would not.
The new television ad has only heightened liberal concerns. Critics of AARP’s approach say that the influential seniors group, which has 37 million members across the country and incredible influence in Washington, is making Social Security’s financial challenges seem much more dire than they really are. In doing so, the group is playing right into the crisis framing favored by conservatives, who want benefit cuts to seem inevitable.
“AARP is aggravating a political situation that allows the right, and even Democrats on the center-right in Washington, to portray Social Security as a problem rather than as a vital resource for working people,” said Eric Laursen, author of The People’s Pension: The Struggle To Defend Social Security Since Reagan.
Although there is a heated fight over approaches to reforming Social Security, no one disputes that there is a funding gap in the program that will eventually become a problem. Social Security will not have enough money to pay out its full promised benefits by 2034, mainly due to the retirement of the large Baby Boomer generation, which has already begun.
If the president and Congress fail to reform the program before then ― either by increasing its revenue through tax increases, reducing its benefits or some combination of the two ― an automatic 21-percent cut would go into effect for all beneficiaries.
But context is key. While the funding gap is a problem, it is hardly the crisis many budget hawks ― and AARP’s new ad ― have implied. A few small measures to increase revenue, like lifting or eliminating the cap on taxable earnings, would make it possible to extend Social Security’s solvency for decades without cutting any benefits. (Americans right now only pay Social Security taxes on the first $118,500 they earn.) Comprehensive immigration reform, which would increase the size of the tax-paying workforce, and policies that reduce income inequality, like raising the minimum wage, would also boost Social Security’s finances.
Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works, a group fighting for an expansion of benefits rather than cuts, said the AARP has been “more effective at pushing the crisis framing” than the conservative groups that have hyped Social Security’s solvency issues precisely because of AARP’s credibility among seniors.
As the 2016 election nears, Lawson and other progressives fear that the combination of AARP’s alarmist rhetoric and its implied blessing for plans that would cut Social Security jeopardizes the success that progressive activists have had in shaping the debate about the program.
AARP did not respond to repeated requests for comment on its campaign or the criticisms of its approach.
“The only reason to lead with something like that is to scare people so they accept something worse than they should.”
It’s not even clear why AARP would want to stake out such a vague position on reform. Social Security is an immensely popular program. A Pew poll from last year found that two-thirds of Americans support keeping benefits at their current level. In fact, opposition to cuts was the only major position that unites supporters of all presidential candidates, Democrat and Republican, according to another Pew survey released in March.
And support for Social Security is likely to rise as more Baby Boomers begin collecting benefits. Over 40 million retired workers currently draw from the fund, and that number is set to grow to about 64 million when all of the Boomers retire, according to an estimate by the National Academy for Social Insurance.
As Lawson put it, “more Americans believe in the Loch Ness monster than want to cut Social Security.”
That popularity is exactly why fiscal conservatives seeking to cut the program for ideological reasons have resorted to hyping up its financial challenges. It is apparently easier to develop support for cutting promised benefits if people are not sure they will get those benefits anyway.
AARP’s television ad borrows from that conservative framing. The 30-second spot airing on cable news channels shows younger and middle-aged workers ― a cook, a firefighter, a football coach ― doing their jobs and suggests that candidates for public office are not doing theirs in failing to tackle Social Security’s shortfall. It concludes with a warning that Americans could suffer a $10,000 benefit cut if the next president fails to act.
It’s not just the ad that has critics concerned about AARP’s positioning on Social Security. Just this summer, the group bestowed several of its “Champion of the 50+” awards on Republican lawmakers who have either explicitly supported benefit cuts or expressed openness to them. GOP recipients included Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Rep. Todd Young (R-Ind.), all of whom are locked in tight Senate races, as well as House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who has proposed privatizing Social Security. (The organization has given awards to several Democratic lawmakers as well, including Massachusetts’ Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is a leading proponent of expanding Social Security.)
The Twitter account of AARP’s advocacy arm also praised a controversial question about Social Security’s solvency in the vice presidential debate earlier this month.
“In 18 years, when the Social Security Trust Funds run out of money, you’ll be 76. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimates your benefits could be cut by as much as $7,500 per year. What would your administration do to prevent this cut?” moderator Elaine Quijano of CBS News asked Democratic nominee Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.)
“It was such a good question!” effused AARP Advocates. But many observers criticized the question precisely because it invoked a frightening hypothetical that remains distant and extremely unlikely, without offering any additional context.
AARP is “saying that Social Security is in this dire situation, that something needs to be done immediately,” Social Security Works’ Lawson said.
“It is an absolute falsehood,” he continued. “The only reason to lead with something like that is to scare people so they accept something worse than they should.”
Indeed, time is on progressives’ side when it comes to reforming Social Security. Leading proponents of benefit cuts, like Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute, would like to see action on Social Security sooner than later, because the closer we get to the date of the shortfall, the more likely the funding gap would need to be filled with tax hikes.
“A tax increase – particularly on high earners – can be phased in almost immediately while sudden benefit reductions are seen [as] disruptive to households planning for retirement,” Biggs wrote in June.
“[AARP is] not coming out and specifically siding with the right, but they give it a certain amount of intellectual legitimacy,” said Laursen, the author of The People’s Pension. “They are tacitly endorsing the idea that a lot of the ideas progressives naturally oppose are worth talking about, and trying to create an atmosphere where if one does not want to talk about some changes to Social Security, one can be accused of standing in the doorway and preventing the solution to a problem.”
Progressive activists who have pushed back against this Social Security alarmism in recent years find this especially disconcerting. At the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency, fiscal conservatives took advantage of public anxiety and confusion over rising budget deficits to create political momentum for cutting Social Security. On more than one occasion, Obama came close to approving a deal with congressional Republicans that would have reduced the program’s annual cost-of-living adjustment.
But organized labor and groups like Social Security Works gradually changed the policy conversation, insisting that the real crisis was the retirement income deficit, which is now $7.7 trillion, according to a calculation from Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research.
“How do you balance those two objectives: to make it solvent and ensure it must do the job it is supposed to do?”
By 2013, advocates had flipped the script and support was growing for an across-the-board expansion of Social Security benefits, to be paid for by making wealthier Americans contribute at a higher level. The private retirement accounts that have replaced traditional pensions don’t provide adequate retirement income, the activists argued, so today’s workers will need Social Security even more than previous generations. Stagnant wages are making it harder for families to save, they also noted.
That argument is winning. Nearly all congressional Democrats are on record supporting expansion, as are President Obama and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. Though Clinton has yet to roll out a detailed plan for how she would pay for it, she has indicated she supports lifting the cap on taxable earnings and finding other ways to make wealthy Americans pay more into the program. Meanwhile, GOP nominee Donald Trump claims he would at least protect the program from cuts.
In spite of the evolution of the debate, AARP’s “Take A Stand” campaign suggests it still views the program exclusively through the lens of financial solvency.
If AARP were concerned about retirement security overall, surely its ads would focus more on the adequacy of Social Security benefits and not just the program’s solvency. A more constructive campaign from the seniors group, said Laursen, would ask politicians to both address Social Security’s solvency and its increasingly vital role as a source of retirement income.
“There is a lot of evidence it needs to be conserved and expanded to serve the needs of the 21st century workforce, [which will be] retiring without the pensions of past generations,” he said. “How do you balance those two objectives: to make it solvent and ensure it must do the job it is supposed to do?”
Laursen speculates that AARP’s unwillingness to weigh in on the merits of particular Social Security reform plans likely stems from a desire to avoid being seen as partisan, which could alienate some members.
Taking a Democratic-leaning stand created problems for AARP in the recent past; the group lost some 300,000 members when it threw its weight behind the Affordable Care Act in 2009.
“AARP may be responding to data they must have about X-ers' and Millennials’ deep doubts about the future of entitlements.”
Now AARP also has some longtime Republican operatives running the campaign. John Hishta, who as AARP’s senior vice president for campaigns runs “Take A Stand,” has a background in Republican politics. He served as executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee from 2001 to 2002 and as chief of staff to former Virginia Rep. Tom Davis (R) before that. And the group has hired veteran GOP pollster and message guru Frank Luntz to conduct focus groups for “Take A Stand.”
But AARP has also responded to liberal pressure this election season. In August, after a progressive research outfit exposed the group’s involvement with the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, AARP announced that it would let its ALEC membership expire at the end of the year.
AARP told HuffPost in February that the organization wanted to wait until after the election to publicize its view of specific Social Security provisions. It has not hesitated to differentiate between different Social Security proposals before past elections, however. In 2012, AARP published a voters’ guide comparing presidential and congressional candidates’ views on Social Security and Medicare alongside AARP’s “principles” for the programs.
AARP has touted data on the views of its current members to promote “Take A Stand.” Sixty-seven percent of the 23,000 members surveyed by AARP said the future of Social Security is their top election concern.
Frederick Lynch, author of the book One Nation Under AARP: The Fight Over Medicare, Social Security, and America’s Future and a professor at Claremont McKenna College, speculated that the group’s focus on Social Security’s solvency is an attempt to appeal to younger Americans, whom it views as its future members.
“AARP may be responding to data they must have about X-er and Millennials’ deep doubts about the future of entitlements,” Lynch said.
But even if younger voters lack confidence in the future of Social Security, they clearly don’t support scaling it back in order to secure it. The Pew poll from last year found that 61 percent of millennials oppose cutting benefits.
As Social Security Works’ Lawson argues, the public wants politicians “to take the right stand, not a stand.”
“We know what that is and so does AARP,” he said. “They know what their members want, and saying anything else is ridiculous.”
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