With zero funds to bring delegates to Washington, Monday's White House Conference on Aging will rely on a mixture of tools to spread its message: tweets, questions delivered through Facebook, and "watch" parties in all 50 states.
What it won't have, for the first time since these once-a-decade conventions began happening in 1961, will be a couple of thousand politically savvy, enthusiastic and often argumentative older people, coming to DC for several days to tell Congress and the President what to do about concerns of the aging population. No demonstrations on or off the conference floor, no press conferences by pleased or disgruntled delegates.
"We have zero appropriations for people to go to the conference," executive director Nora Super said in an interview. Instead, the conference will go to them, with 380 watch parties scheduled in venues across the country. The conference has been using the tools of the digital age to engage people: regional forums in Tampa, Phoenix, Seattle, Cleveland and Boston were recorded, and can be viewed on the White House conference website.
Also available are policy briefs on the key themes for the conference, Healthy Aging, Long-term Services and Supports, Elder Justice, and Income Security. Tweets are posted, along with an invitation to "share your story about aging, either as an older adult or a caregiver."
The President asked for $3 million in his 2015 fiscal year budget for the conference. He didn't get a dollar from Congressional appropriators. Without any money, a conference fact sheet says, "the scale and scope of the Conference will differ from previous Conferences. We are using technology and other tools not available in the past to reach and engage more people than was previously possible."
Because nobody is coming to convene in Washington, there won't be any resolutions or statements coming from attendees, or meetings where they can argue and debate. The first White House conference on Aging was held in 1961, and helped generates publicity and political momentum for President Kennedy's proposal to create a Medicare program providing for health care for Americans over age 65. The Kennedy proposal, later packaged with voluntary private insurance to cover doctor bills, became the Medicare plan passed by Congress and signed into law by President Johnson in 1965.
Instead of the old model-waiting for resolutions or suggestions by delegates- the Obama Administration will issue a future report on the conference and the needs of older Americans.
A final report seems likely to avoid anything controversial, such as the proposal to boost Social Security benefits, an idea coming from some advocacy groups and liberal members of Congress, and now being heavily promoted by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) as part of his bid for the Democratic Presidential nomination. Social Security payroll taxes are now levied on incomes up to $118,000 a year. Sanders wants to resume the taxes again at incomes above $250,000.
Super was at the recent conference of the Alliance for Retired Americans, where she was presented with petitions with 261,000 signatures supporting a boost in Social Security retirement checks.
"The message has certainly been heard, she said. "This is certainly an issue that has been raised at the White House."
However, the issue brief prepared for the conference offers few specifics on Social Security, other than a promise to preserve it for future generations. The President had previously advocated in his 2013 budget a change in the way inflation is calculated to provide annual cost-of-living increases for retirement checks. His proposal would have reduced the size of future inflation adjustments. This idea was brushed aside by Democrats in Congress.