AARP waffles on Social Security cuts

Social Security supporters attend a rally in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill.

Kai Ryssdal: There was an item in the Wall Street Journal today that wasn't so much a news story as it was a revelation. The paper said the influential lobbying group for seniors -- AARP -- is "dropping its longstanding opposition to cutting Social Security benefits." That sentence was widely welcomed as a sign the ice might be breaking in the tough debate over entitlement cuts in Washington.

Until -- just a few hours after the story appeared -- AARP did what you might call a partial backpedal. Be that as it may, our senior business correspondent Bob Moon explains there's now some buzz that Washington might finally be ready to talk about the future of Social Security.


Bob Moon: As if to soften the glare of a suddenly hot spotlight, AARP issued a statement calling the story "inaccurate," and declaring in a bold headline: "AARP has not changed its position on Social Security."

But when we pressed the question, the group's legislative policy chief David Certner seemed to leave the door open to "debating" possible cuts.

David Certner: We know that benefit cuts will be on the table as part of a package. Our preference is to maintain the Social Security benefits; others have different opinions and would prefer to cut Social Security much deeper. We need to have that debate, but not just with us, but with the American public.

The distinction the group seemed to draw today was that it doesn't want lawmakers relying on such cuts in the debate over slashing the deficit. Certner insists Social Security is a separate program.

Certner: It's financed separately. It should not be cut to deal with a budget deficit it didn't cause.

But some experts pointed out that's a distinction without much meaning. Erskine Bowles co-chaired President Obama's special commission on the deficit. He says separate debate or not, cutting Social Security benefits will result in less red ink. He thinks the AARP is trying to gracefully position itself for a seat at the table because it knows that cutting is inevitable.

Erskine Bowles: It's a big move because seniors trust them, and when AARP says that, you know, this is OK, this makes sense, then it makes it easier for politicians to make those difficult choices.

Today, the group seemed to be locked in a delicate dance between political reality and the worries of its members. Bowles suggests it's just the latest group in Washington that's ever so slowly coming to terms with the painful future.

Bowles: Look, I think you'll see people pull forward, pull back. This is not an easy thing to do, but it is reality -- it's what we have to do.

I'm Bob Moon for Marketplace.

About the author

Bob Moon is Marketplace’s senior business correspondent, based in Los Angeles.

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