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Opinion leaders engage San Antonio community

Three panelists. One moderator. Eighty-plus audience members, spanning three generations. Democrats, Republicans, Independents, and everyone in between gathered at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio on June 4 to bust myths, break gridlock, and find common ground. So what drew this diverse crowd to AARP’s Opinion Leaders Forum?

Cold, hard cash. Or, at least, talking about it.

AARP sponsored the forum which focused on the future of financial security for Americans of all ages as part of Divided We Fail, a long-term, public outreach effort designed to find bi-partisan solutions to ensure affordable, quality health care and lifetime financial security for Americans of all ages. The topics of discussion included discussions on Social Security, personal savings in the wake of declining pension plans, and financial literacy.

Three lively panelists brought the heat. Lionel Sosa—founder of the largest Hispanic advertising agency in the U.S., sat side-by-side with Cindy Hounsell—an experienced pension attorney and president of the Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement, and Dr. James Galbraith—an economics professor at the University of Texas and the former executive director of the U.S. Joint Economic Committee. Moderator Frank Morris, a member of AARP’s National Policy Council, facilitated a spirited discussion.

After a brief discussion on diminishing pensions, Morris broached the controversial topic of Social Security.

“When Social Security last needed a fix, Ronald Reagan sat down with…Tip O’Neill…and worked out a solution that increased taxes and trimmed benefits,” Morris said. “Do you think that kind of solution is possible today?”

Sosa feared the eventual decline of Social Security and doubted the program’s sustainability. “People are living longer today, and that costs more money and impacts Social Security,” he said.  No one projected we would live this long.”

But Galbraith noted the importance of the program will rise.

“Social Security will be even more important in the future than it is today…[and] it’s up to us to defend that great institution,” he said.

Americans’ attitudes toward savings was another key part of the discussion, with Morris asking: “The personal savings rate has fallen to the lowest levels since the Great Depression. What can be done to encourage more people to take control of their own financial futures?”

Sosa advocated a shift in cultural values. He theorized that it is American expectation—not the American dream—that has become impossible to maintain.

In 1946, he argued, the average American family hoped to own one car, a two-bedroom one-bathroom house, an icebox, and if they were very, very lucky, a washing machine. Now, he said, if Americans don’t have two cars and a three-bedroom home, they think they’re poor.

Again, both Galbraith and Hounsell countered his argument. Yes, they said, the American dream has changed. However, since Americans are working longer, harder hours, the panelists theorized that workers have appropriately increased their expectation for a higher standard of living. According to Galbraith, it is a lack of opportunity—not a lack of discipline—that prevents Americans from saving.

“Research shows that if people have extra income, they save it,” Galbraith said.

The culprit for a lack of savings, he claimed, was not necessarily American greed and consumerism. The panelists concurred that a broken health care system that fails to provide adequate coverage is a key factor.

By the end of the conversation, the panelists and the audience agreed that talking about financial security with neighbors and friends—even neighbors and friends with different opinions—will, eventually, help to inspire change. And the time for change is now.

“We’re always going to have differences of opinion and there will always be disagreements about specific policies and legislation,” Morris said. “But if today’s forum is any indication, there are people all across the political spectrum who are truly committed to making a difference and not leaving these problems for the next generation.”

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