The Alliance for Retired Americans, an advocacy group affiliated with the AFL-CIO, is running pro-GOP TV spots in Pennsylvania, where Democrat Joe Sestak and Republican Pat Toomey are competing for the Senate seat held by Arlen Specter, and in five House districts with similarly close races. The ads, which warn that if Republicans take control of Congress they might raise the Social Security retirement age, probably were not intended to boost the GOP's chances. But they called my attention to a June 28 Pittsburgh Tribune-Review interview in which House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), in contrast with his comments when House Republicans released their curiously noncommittal Pledge to America last month, not only said he was going to level with the American people about entitlements but actually did.
"We're all living a lot longer than anyone ever expected," Boehner said. "I think raising the retirement age— going out 20 years, so you're not affecting anyone close to retirement, and eventually getting the retirement age to 70—is a step that needs to be taken." He added that increases in Social Security benefits should be tied to the consumer price index (reflecting increases in the cost of living) rather than wage inflation and that benefits should be means tested. "We need to look at the American people and explain to them that we're broke," he said, "and that if you have substantial, non–Social Security income while you're retired, why are we paying you?...We just need to be honest with people."
Latching onto the comment about raising the retirement age, the ARA ads show comically old folks working as police officers, firefighters, lifeguards, and jackhammer operators. It's a surprisingly ageist approach for a group that's supposedly all about defending the dignity of senior citizens: They're so old! They shouldn't be doing those jobs, except maybe to entertain the rest of us with their decrepit ineptitude. In any case, here's what the narrator says:
What are seniors hoping for if Republicans take over Congress?
You're hoping things will change?
Hope you're also planning to stay on the job.
Because at least one change means seniors will have to work. And work. And keep right on working.
Yes, that's right. The Republican leadership wants to raise your retirement age to 70.
So tell [Name of Republican] this is no joke. We can't wait for Social Security until our 70th birthday.
Protect Social Security. Vote [Name of Democrat] for Congress.
Boehner, of course, made it clear that his proposal (which should not be confused with what Republicans will actually do when they're in charge of Congress again) would exempt not only people who are about to retire but even relative youngsters like me (thanks, John!). So the whole premise of the ad—that viewers approaching retirement should worry that they will have to continue working several years longer than they anticipated—is false. It may nevertheless scare some 60-somethings into voting. But for those of us who despair of hearing anything like fiscal seriousness from leading politicians of either party, the message is one of hope.
In a column about Social Security last month, I noted that life expectancy at 65 has risen by by about four years for men and five years for women since that retirement age was set in 1935. Furthermore, the share of Americans who reach retirement age is substantially larger than it used to be: In 1940, for example, only 54 percent of 21-year-old men could expect to reach 65, compared to 78 percent today. Yet the retirement age has been raised by only two years (for people born after 1959) since the program was established.