AARP, the nation’s largest organization for older Americans, traces its heritage to the late 1940s when a high-school principal set out to make sure retired teachers had adequate health insurance. About a decade later, the group she founded, the National Retired Teachers Association, expanded its membership and became the American Association of Retired Persons.
In the 1990s, that organization dropped its full title — along with the requirement that its members be retired — and became simply “AARP,” targeted to people ages 50 and up.
Today, AARP has an annual budget of nearly $1.5 billion, the bulk of which comes from royalties companies pay for the right to use the AARP name and logo when marketing products to older Americans. About one-fifth of the organization’s budget comes from dues paid by 38 million members (that’s roughly 35 percent of America’s 50-and-over population). With that kind of membership clout, AARP is one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the nation.
What does it lobby for? Among other things, AARP supported President Bill Clinton’s 1994 push for a large expansion of government involvement in healthcare. In 2005, the organization helped stop a Republican-led attempt to reconfigure Social Security benefits to put the SS program on a more solid financial footing. And in 2010, AARP riled many of its more conservative-minded members with its strong support of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).
AARP’s Obamacare stance cost the group about 300,000 members, many of whom affiliated with other senior groups. “We made an offer to anyone who cut their AARP card in half that we’d give them a year’s free membership,” says Randy Lewin, spokesman for the American Seniors Association, which bills itself as the “conservative alternative” to AARP. “We had to stop [the promotion] early. I had too many 55-gallon trash bags full of AARP cards cut in half.”
Jim Martin of the 60 Plus Association, which also uses the “conservative alternative to AARP” line, pulls no punches. He calls the AARP “a huge fraud on seniors, profiting by commission from a variety of money-making schemes…and promoting programs of big government and high taxes which [ultimately] hurt, not help” older Americans.
Organizations that are “AARP alternatives” typically offer senior discounts similar to those available from AARP. Some also engage in political advocacy — from the conservative side of the spectrum — regarding key issues to seniors.
Below is an overview, in alphabetical order, of five alternative organizations. Membership numbers are based on self-reporting and have not been independently verified.
- American Seniors Association (ASA)
Founded in 2005, ASA (originally known as the National Association for Senior Concerns) offers travel and prescription discounts. The group’s “Five Foundations” include rebuilding values of “respect and appreciation” for seniors, reforming Social Security (via a private-account solution), reforming Medicare (to include more choice), overhauling the “mountain of a mess” income-tax code, and controlling “wasteful and silly” government overspending. ASA does not report membership numbers on its website, but asserts that it is “the fastest growing seniors’ advocacy in the nation.”
- Association of Mature American Citizens (AMAC).
This organization, founded a decade ago, combines conservative political advocacy with a more robust benefits catalog than other groups, appealing to politically involved seniors who also want AARP-like discounts. In 2014, AMAC — then boasting 1.1 million members — boosted its membership by “hundreds of thousands” by merging with a like-minded group, Generation America.
- National Association of Conservative Seniors (NAOCS)
This group, founded in 2012, primarily offers travel discounts. The NAOCS has two levels of membership: “Silver” and “Gold Patriot.” The Gold Patriot membership includes a vacation voucher plus a “click to call” feature that promises to simplify the process of contacting elected officials.
- The Seniors Coalition (TSC)
This organization was launched in 1989 to lobby for repeal of the short-lived Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act — an unpopular law that forced many seniors to pay for coverage they didn’t want. TSC’s website claims it is “one of the largest grassroots advocacy organizations” in Washington, D.C., “representing nearly 3 million seniors.” The group offers travel, insurance, and health-related discounts.
- 60 Plus Association
Founded in 1992, 60 Plus is a “nonpartisan seniors advocacy group with a free enterprise, less government, and fewer taxes view towards issues important to seniors,” according to the organization’s website. Its top legislative priorities are “ending the federal estate tax and saving Social Security for the young.” 60 Plus is focused on political advocacy only and does not offer member discounts. The group claims more than seven million members.
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