When Susan Johnson took an early retirement buyout nine years ago, she figured she'd land another full-time job.
It hasn't worked that way. Finding only part-time work, she eventually went on food assistance and received help from churches. She lost her house to foreclosure, slept in her car for three weeks and could no longer afford her retiree health insurance.
When she turned 62 in March, she filed for Social Security and began receiving about $1,500 a month.
"To me it's a lifesaver," she said. "It gives me courage and hope. I no longer have to hang my head and wonder if I'll end up in my car again."
But she still worries she won't be able to regain health insurance until she turns 65 and qualifies for Medicare.
Johnson, of Bothell, is a volunteer with the AARP Washington Fraud Fighter program in the Seattle area. She's also one of nearly 1.1 million Washingtonians who receive Social Security benefits. More than one-fifth of them rely on the program for 90 percent of their income, while nearly half depend on it for 50 percent or more of their income. Nearly a million Washingtonians are covered by Medicare.
You've earned a say
Federal officials are talking about reducing spending or boosting revenues for Social Security and Medicare, sometimes in secret. But AARP wants all Americans to participate in decisions about these vital programs.
Since April, as part of a national effort called You've Earned a Say, AARP Washington has been sponsoring town halls, tele-town halls, volunteer-led listening sessions, webcasts and other events throughout the state. It has also surveyed thousands of residents of all ages on their views and will share its findings with lawmakers and the public. AARP has also posted a You've Earned a Say online questionnaire in hopes of reaching as many people as possible.
"Our message is, you've earned Social Security and Medicare benefits from a lifetime of work, and you have a say about what Congress does with those benefits," said Doug Shadel, AARP Washington state director.
"We can't afford to have the debate behind the closed doors of congressional caucuses," said A. Barry Rand, AARP's chief executive officer. "We'll make sure the politicians in Washington hear your voice loud and clear."
Don't be fooled by ads
AARP Washington also is concerned about the blizzard of political campaign advertising this year dealing with Social Security, Medicare and other key issues. To help people separate truths from falsehoods, AARP Washington is presenting videotaped tips from Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a University of Pennsylvania political communications expert, at four You've Earned a Say town halls.
"There is deception on both sides, and you might be deceived by your own side," said Jamieson, who calls that "my-side bias." Voters, she added, need to watch out for ads that play on fear, use emotional images or music, or in any way distract them from thinking critically about what's being said.
Jamieson lists three ways voters can inform themselves:
- Watch the candidate debates.
- Read, watch and listen to news reports that cover all sides of issues.
- Check politicians' claims by visiting nonpartisan fact-checking websites such as PolitiFact.com, FlackCheck.org and FactCheck.org.
Shadel added that AARP's website and publications also feature factual coverage of Social Security and Medicare issues.
AARP's goal is to help voters spot false or misleading statements about Social Security and Medicare.
The trustees of the two programs say changes are needed to keep them solvent for the long term. Even without changes, Social Security will be able to pay full benefits until 2033. Medicare's hospital fund will be able to fully pay hospital bills for the next 12 years, while Medicare's outpatient and drug programs will be able to fully pay bills indefinitely.
People attending You've Earned a Say events will learn about various proposals for changing Social Security and Medicare, including: modifying the cost-of-living adjustment; reducing benefits for wealthier beneficiaries; converting Medicare into a voucher program; raising the cap on income subject to the payroll tax; and raising the eligibility age for full retirement benefits.
Many Americans get worried when they hear such proposals, because half of all workers have no employer-provided retirement plan and more than one in three working households have no retirement savings.
"We have to protect the rights of Americans to have an income and health insurance," Johnson said. "Social Security is a wonderful thing. It's not perfect, but they need to touch it up, not destroy it. Without it, millions of Americans today and tomorrow will be up a creek."
Upcoming You've Earned a Say events are scheduled for:
* Spokane, June 7, 9:30 a.m. to noon
CenterPlace Regional Event Center
* Olympia/Lacey, June 26, 9:30 a.m. to noon
Norman Worthington Conference Center
St. Martin's University, Lacey
Events are free, but advance registration is required. Register online or call toll-free1-877-926-8300.
Also of interest: AARP CEO A. Barry Rand says you deserve a voice in the debate.
Harris Meyer is a freelance writer and editor based in Yakima, Wash.