AARP Hawaii has a message for voters ages 18 and above: Social Security and Medicare are imperiled, so get educated and vote accordingly.

“Who is president and who are members of Congress have taken on a huge significance this election,” said executive director Barbara Kim Stanton. “We are at a crossroads for which direction we are going in and what changes are proposed. This is a wake up call for our safety net programs.”

Stanton said there is a lot of confusion about the entitlement programs, especially as the two are used in political campaigns. So AARP Hawaii wants to break through the confusion and highlight the facts.

AARP has already held some 30 workshops statewide to explain how Social Security and Medicare are funded, how long they will remain solvent and to suggest the pros and cons of possible funding solutions for both programs.

Civil Beat attended Wednesday’s workshop at Ward Warehouse, which featured a policy analyst from the national AARP. Workshops are set for Pearl City on Friday and Kailua on Saturday.

“It’s really important for the people you hire to represent them in Washington, D.C., to know what you want them to do,” said Cheryl Matheis, AARP’s senior vice president for policy.

Matheis encouraged meeting attendees to review the candidate positions on entitlements on AARP’s website.

“You can click through and send your thoughts right to them,” she told them. “If enough people do it, we will really pressure them to do what we want them to do.”

Powerful, Yet Vulnerable Population


AARP does not actually tell its members what voters should tell candidates and lawmakers. As a nonpartisan, nonprofit 501(c)4, however, it can lobby for legislation and participate in political activity as long as it is for the promotion of social welfare.1

Even if AARP could tell its members what to think and say, many probably wouldn’t listen anyway. Indeed, AARP members are as diverse as the nation, representing all political views.

With 37 million members, they are also arguably the most powerful lobby in the nation. That explains why both the Democratic and Republican parties emphasize their support Social Security and Medicare, albeit with very different approaches on how to keep the programs intact.

The fate of the entitlement programs are especially important in Hawaii.

Stanton said Social Security makes up 50 percent or more of income for more than half of Hawaii residents 65 and over, and that it is the only source of income for more than a quarter of that age group. Meanwhile, Hawaii has 210,000 Medicare beneficiaries that spend on average 15 percent of their income — about $4,600 a year — for out-of-pocket health care costs.

“That’s a lot, and that’s why I keep saying people in Hawaii have to watch what happens in this election,” said Stanton. “Social Security and Medicare have been the bedrock for our seniors and our families, and without it they are extremely vulnerable.”

How vulnerable? Stanton cites a statistic: The average cost of nursing home care is $126,000 a year, and most people are in nursing homes for about three years.

“Do the math,” she said. “People in Hawaii do not normally have over $350,000 to pay for long-term care services which they will need for themselves or their loved ones. So this is a tremendous concern.”

Matheis, who is traveling around the country with AARP’s You’ve Earned a Say initiative, agrees.

She said the AARP’s “anxiety index” of Hawaii showed that about 25 percent of the people surveyed said they would delay their retirement by five years, while about 24 percent said they were never going to be able to retire.

“They would work until they fall over,” she said, adding that Hawaii’s anxiety index for people on the cusp of retirement was “right through the roof.”

Fix Programs Now, Or Later?

During Wednesday’s workshop, about 100 people, many of them senior citizens, paid close attention to the AARP’s PowerPoint presentation.

Colored charts and graphs detailed how Social Security and Medicare are funded and how that funding is projected to play out over the next few decades.

While the programs are funded differently — Social Security is self-financed largely through payroll taxes while Medicare is a combination of general tax revenues and payroll taxes — they both share a big problem: The age groups that have paid into the programs and depend on benefits are much larger than the age groups of those that are currently paying into the program. Medicare’s solvency is further impacted by rising health care costs and inflation.

Steve Tam, director of advocacy for the local AARP, led the audience through a survey of questions about the programs. By selecting their answers on mobile clickers — blue-colored devices that resemble cell phones — distributed by AARP, the survey answers are converted instantly into a bar graph and projected on the PowerPoint screen.

For example, the instant survey determined that most members of the audience wanted to see some changes made to entitlement programs now but want major changes made later.

What the workshops are particularly adept at is explaining possible solutions — 12 for Social Security, 15 for Medicare — and the pros and cons of each. The AARP relies on liberal and conservative think tanks — the Brookings Institute and the Heritage Foundation, respectively — to provide balance in the proposals.

Example: Should the retirement age be raised for Social Security?

Pro: People are living longer than ever before, and the full benefits age should be increased. Otherwise, recipients will spend an ever-greater amount of their lives living in retirement, which we simply cannot afford. …

Con: Raising the full retirement age is a benefit cut no matter what age you begin taking benefits. The increase from 65 to 67 already in law cuts benefits by 13 percent. …

Gerry Silva, a volunteer for AARP Hawaii, conducts the solutions and funding section of the workshops. He joked that AARP doesn’t offer advice, but he did when it came to questions about health care.

“Whatever you do, don’t make changes to existing benefits without talking to someone, because once you cancel benefits you can’t get them back,” he said.

The PowerPoint then flashed the phone number for Sage PLUS — 1-888-875-9229 — the state’s health insurance assistance program.

‘I Love AARP’

George Lee, 85, liked what he heard at the workshop. He retired 20 years ago as a community organizer for the Episcopal Church and as an urban planner for the state.

“As someone who has been on Medicare and Social Security for 20 years now, I think it’s valuable to know what is coming up,” he said. “And I know that the two political parties, the major parties, have really different visions about what to do about these large programs that take up so much of our federal revenue.”

Lee said he is against turning Medicare into a voucher program and against Social Security becoming “an investment program,” as has been proposed by some national Republicans.

“There’s so many people on Social Security where it’s their only income,” he said. “They wouldn’t know what to do if they were given cash and told to go invest it.”

Lee favors re-electing President Obama and a Democratic Congress as the best way to save entitlements, but he said his views are not necessarily shared by other AARP members.

“I’ve been an AARP member for 30 years, and I know that a lot of members come from middle incomes and they have a lot of discretionary money,” he said. “So they come from the point of view that Social Security is not essential to their well-being.”

Politics aside, Lee concluded: “I love AARP for doing this because a lot of people just don’t have the information.”

About the Author