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Evaluating the Bite of Social Security Watchdogs

February 18, 1988|DON CAMPBELL | Times Staff Writer

Question: I have attached a mailing that my husband received recently from an organization that seems to be headed by James Roosevelt, retired U.S. congressman, and the whole tenor of it is summed up in one of the opening lines: "Never in the 53 years since my father, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, started the Social Security system have there been such threats to our Social Security and Medicare benefits as the decade of the '80s."

My point is: Is it legal to send out material like this that has such an official look to it and that is designed to look as if it is being mailed by the Social Security Administration?--B.J.

Answer: Actually, if you've got the eyes of a marauding osprey, you'll see a teeny, tiny disclaimer printed at the bottom of the material: "The National Committee is totally independent of Congress, every government agency, and all political parties." No, Dave Mazer, a spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service here, says, there's nothing illegal about such mailings, which ape the appearance of official organizations, as long as this sort of disclaimer is included.

Government Agency

It's doubtful any government agency has as many people looking over its shoulder as the Social Security Administration does--at the national level, about 15.

The organization to which Roosevelt lends his name is the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, and the pitch is to sell you a $10 annual membership. What does the organization do with the money? It researches and reviews Social Security policies "to educate the public through forums, speeches, correspondence, etc.," according to the Encyclopedia of Associations. A periodic newsletter is the principal vehicle for this, although the committee also distributes a monthly column on Social Security matters, "Understanding Social Security," to newspapers across the country.

Increasingly aware of the political clout that they have, the country's oldsters are fair game for any sort of program holding out the promise of being able to forge them into a cohesive power base to shape, or reshape, current Social Security and Medicare policies.

Educational Material

How do professionals within the government agency view all of this outside business? "It doesn't really bother us," SS public affairs spokesman Roy Aragon says. "This organization doesn't really distribute any educational material that the public can't get from us without charge. But that's all right."

Whether recipients of the sort of mailing you forwarded really know what they are joining or not, the strategy seems to pay off. Founded just six years ago, the National Committee claims 3.7 million members and has an annual operating budget of $29 million.

Far better known and--from all evidence at hand--far more powerful than the National Committee is AARP (American Assn. of Retired Persons), which was founded in 1958. With an awesome membership of 24 million people age 50 and over, AARP has 10 regional groups and 3,500 local enclaves.

And, in sharp contrast to the National Committee's almost exclusive dedication to "education," a $5-a-year membership in AARP opens the door to a mind-boggling array of services: everything from pre-retirement planning programs to a subscription to the magazine Modern Maturity, to group health, life and automobile insurance, travel services, senior discounts on auto rentals and hotel rates and a discount, mail-order pharmaceutical service.

Without taking sides (well, almost without taking sides), there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of comparison between what a $10-year-membership in the National Committee buys you and what $5 a year gets you from AARP.

Q: I am 77 years old and my wife is 72. I have had a Sears account for about 15 years. About 2 1/2 years ago, I bought a couch on sale from Sears--marked down from $800 to $400. My wife and I always sleep together, but recently I caught a cold--which I rarely do--so I went to sleep in the den.

I opened the couch to sleep but when I lay down I heard a loud noise under the couch. When I looked under it, I saw that one of two wires had snapped. Nobody had slept or sat on the couch since we bought it. I went to the Sears store where I bought it and was told that the guarantee was for one year, even though the couch was really brand new. I was told to write to you by a lady in the Senior Citizen Center. Can you help us?--J.D.

A: Perhaps furniture retailers should guarantee their bedding in the same way that automobile manufacturers guarantee their output: good for one year or 150 naps, whichever comes first.

While the one-year guarantee is pretty standard for most items of furniture, according to Bill Rule, Sears' public affairs spokesman in Chicago, Sears also has its own credo, which goes back almost to its founding in 1886. Simply put, Rule said, it has to do with "customer satisfaction."

He quite agrees with you that, 2 1/2 years old or not, the couch shouldn't have broken down the first time you tried to use it as a bed. "They probably used it to sit on from time to time, but that's not really the point," Rule added.

He will pass along your name, address and telephone number to Sears' regional office on the West Coast, and someone will contact you and look into it. Anyone with any furniture experience at all, he said, should be able to look at the couch and estimate the amount of wear that it has experienced since you bought it. Some sort of adjustment should be possible.

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