En español | Thousands of AARP members and volunteers will begin attending virtual meetings and emailing their members of Congress Tuesday to make it clear what issues they expect their elected officials to act on.
Traditionally, lawmakers would see these constituents walking the halls of the nation's capital and sitting across from them at conference tables. Activists from across the country would fly to Washington and join AARP staff on Capitol Hill.
But the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated a change of plans. The organization had its first virtual lobby effort in April. “This is an opportunity for folks to speak directly to their members of Congress,” says Bill Sweeney, AARP senior vice president for government affairs. “It's also a great opportunity for members of Congress to hear from their constituents, so it's a win-win for both.” In the end, Sweeney adds, members of Congress will actually speak to more people than they would have for an in-person event.
Lobby Week, Sweeney says, is a way for AARP members and volunteers to highlight issues that may have been overshadowed by other concerns during the election campaign, such as the pandemic. The three major issues on the agenda, he says, are nursing home safety, food insecurity and a glitch in Social Security that could hurt Americans who turn 60 this year.
Protecting nursing homes
High on AARP's list of priorities is the need to ensure that nursing homes and other long-term care facilities have the testing capacity and personal protective equipment that residents and staff need to keep themselves safe and prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
More than 97,000 nursing home residents and staff have succumbed to the coronavirus, making these facilities the source of 40 percent of COVID-19 deaths.
AARP is also concerned about the isolation that the pandemic has caused. While nursing home visits had recently resumed, in many states they're being halted again because of the coronavirus surge. That illustrates the need for families to be able to communicate with loved ones in these facilities virtually.
"Certainly, as COVID rages all across the county and we're seeing another staggering resurgence in nursing homes, we really think it's important for Congress to hear from AARP members about why it's so important that we protect people who are living and working in nursing homes,” Sweeney says.
Food needs increasing
As cars line up for miles at food banks across the country, AARP members will also be urging Congress to temporarily increase the minimum and maximum benefits for the SNAP program, formerly known as food stamps. Currently, the maximum federal SNAP monthly benefit is $204 for an individual and $374 for a couple; the average benefit is $138 a month for an individual, $260 for two people.
The inability to afford food particularly affects Americans over age 50 because of increased challenges for those seeking employment and the limitations of the fixed incomes many older Americans face, meaning they have limited financial resources to pay for such necessities as food, housing and prescription medications.
"We've heard from people all over the country about the challenges with getting food during this pandemic, and I think Lobby Week gives us an opportunity to talk about the issue of food security,” Sweeney says.
A glitch in Social Security's wage formula
For the 4 million Americans turning 60 in 2020, the fact that the average wage level for American workers could fall significantly this year because of COVID-19 means that those workers could lose up to $70,000 in Social Security retirement benefits over their lifetime.
The problem of being born in 1960 lies in a quirk in the way benefits are calculated. The Social Security Administration (SSA) determines a person's initial benefit using the national average wage index two years prior to their being eligible for benefits. Typically, the index rises from year to year, but if the index falls for any reason — in this case, due to the economic impact of the pandemic — so does the projected benefit. Since beneficiaries can start collecting retirement benefits at age 62, the average wage index for 2020 is particularly important to people turning 60 this year.
What's the solution? AARP wants Congress to act so these 4 million Americans won't be unfairly affected by any dramatic drop in the wage index. “AARP is showing up. We're fighting to defend Social Security, as we always do,” Sweeney says.