Older Voters Talk Turkey to Congress

Printed October 26, 2012, Pawtucket Times 

            Even the Presidential election less than two weeks away, registered voters across the nation should exercise their Democratic right to vote.  Since the beginning of July local and state political candidates attended hundreds of public events scattered throughout the OceanState, passing out campaign literature, putting up signs throughout their legislative districts, along with distributing bumper stickers to promote their candidacy on their supporter’s vehicles. .

             During this current election cycle AARP moved to push Congress to address the major issues surrounding Social Security and Medicare, gathering opinions from millions of Americans in thousands of communities across the nation. 

            “People of all ages and across party lines believe Medicare and Social Security are critical to the health and retirement security of older Americans and yet all voters are hearing from the candidates about these programs are attack ads and 30-second sound bites,” says AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen S. Connell. “The next President and Congress could determine the future of Social Security and Medicare. Voters want and deserve to know where the candidates stand.”

Setting the Record Straight

            Last March, AARP, the nation’s largest aging advocacy group and its state groups, unrolled a new initiative to educate voters about the nation’s two largest domestic programs, Social Security and Medicare and to gather their thoughts to forward to decision makers inside the Washington Beltway.  

            Following its national headquarters’ lead, AARP Rhode Island geared up its final phase of its “You’ve Earned a Say,” initiative, an effort to gather grassroots feedback from “Outside the Beltway” to bring to Congressional lawmakers as they continue their heated debates as to how to bolster the solvency of the nation’s Social Security and Medicare programs.  The educational initiative was created to fuel conversations at the state and national levels to ensure that workers in every state, who have faithfully contributed into Medicare and Social Security Programs, had a direct say in the future reforms of these programs.

            AARP Rhode Island reached out to 130,000 Rhode Island members and its Washington, DC headquarters, to nearly 40 million members to raise awareness of the “You’ve Earned a Say” initiative.  It’s website, www.earnedasay.org, provided both factual and straightforward information as to policies that are being considered and enabled a person to share their ideas with Congress and those running against Congressional incumbents, as how to strengthen these programs. 

            So far, AARP’s educational initiative brought over 3 million people into this conversation on Medicare and Social Security and held over 3,000 events.  At the local level, AARP Rhode Island staff met over 4,000 aging baby boomers and seniors who shared their concerns about the future of these programs. 

            According to Connell, AARP’s “You’ve Earned a Say” initiative was created to bring balanced information to voters — both the pros and the cons — about the policy options being debated during the upcoming Presidential and Congressional elections for both programs. 

            Earlier in this summer, AARP released a series of national surveys on the opinions of voters ages 50 and over, which found that these voters overwhelmingly think the candidates have not done a good job of explaining their plans on Social Security (67%) and Medicare (63%). Voters 50-plus – across party lines – say that getting more information on the candidates’ plans on Social Security (72%) and Medicare (70%) will help them determine their vote on Election Day on Tuesday, November 6, 2012.

            Through the reports and ongoing You’ve Earned a Say events, AARP worked hard to elevate the voices of Rhode Island voters and provide them with nonpartisan information about candidates’ positions on issues important to aging baby boomers and seniors.  In August, AARP launched the “You’ve Earned a Say: Vote for Retirement Security” 2012 Voters’ Guides featuring information from presidential, senatorial and congressional candidates – in their own words – on their own specific plans to strengthen Social Security, Medicare and financial security.

            This week, AARP Rhode Island volunteers delivered a 10 page report entitled “Rhode Islanders Have Their Say about Medicare and Social Security” to Rhode Island Members of Congress and congressional candidates.  The state-specific report conveys the opinions of over 2,100 Rhode Islanders who have participated in the AARP initiative.  National and state-specific versions of the report were also delivered to both presidential and congressional candidates in every state, as well as sitting lawmakers, so they could hear directly from their constituents about their views of how to strengthen these vital domestic programs. 

A Rhode Island Snap Shot

            Out of  2,182 respondents, 32 percent believe Social Security is “okay as is,” followed by 26 percent who only saw a need for minor fixes.    Twenty three percent of those responding believed that Congress must make major changes to the program with 19 percent seeing this domestic program in “a state of crisis.”

            As to Medicare, 26 percent of the respondents say that Medicare “is ok as is” followed by 28 believing that only minor policy fixes are need to keep it solvent.  However, a whopping 31 percent believes major changes are needed to fix Medicare, followed by 15 percent saying Medicare is in “a state of crisis.”

            Twenty eight percent say that they expect the benefits from participating in Social Security and Medicare will equal the contributions they paid while 28 percent will get less benefits.  Forty four percent believe that they might get more back from these two programs the same that they contributed.

            Thirty six percent of the respondents say that more funding is needed to maintain the same benefits while 13 percent fear that benefits will be slashed.  Forty percent expect more funding is needed to shore up the program, but expecting a cut in benefits.  Twelve percent have no opinion.

            Finally, ninety one percent of the respondents want their voice heard by Washington policy makers but 47 percent do not expect it will make a difference.  Nine percent are not interested in getting involved.

            The majority of respondents (51 percent)  called for some changes to be made now, but suggested that Congress should wait before making major changes.  They (35 percent) also believed that higher paid workers aren’t paying enough into the Social Security program and that the program should become solvent before bettered benefit are paid out (68 percent).

            Additionally, the majority (70 percent) also called for a balanced approach when making revenue and benefit changes to ensure there is retirement benefits to future retirees. Fifty five percent also supported upper income workers get higher benefits because they contributed more into the system.

            Most of the respondents (48 percent) also suggested that Congress move slow in making major changes to Medicare, only making small fixes now.   Thirty six percent  believe that the biggest challenge facing Medicare is rising health care costs.  Seventy five percent agreed that all future retirees continue to get guaranteed coverage and care as those get now.  As with Social Security, a majority (62 percent) also called for a balanced approach when making revenue and benefit changes to ensure Medicare is available to future retirees.  Forty four percent say that premiums and funding from the genera federal revenues should not be used to cover increased health care costs.

            Voting may be more difficult in this heated partisan political campaign where voters must learn to separate political rhetoric and negative innuendoes from the substance of issues.  AARP’s “You’ve Earned a Say” initiative is a successful attempt to give back power to voters, helping them become more knowledgeable about Social Security and Medicare in order to rise above negative campaigning.  Your vote must be made by understanding the facts and not be influenced by the fiction of negative attack ads.

            Herb Weiss is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

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