What Older Americans Think: Interest Groups and Aging Policy

What Older Americans Think: Interest Groups and Aging Policy

by Christine L. Day


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As the much publicized "graying of America" progresses, political groups that lobby for the elderly have achieved enormous power and organizational success, with no sign of decline in the foreseeable future. What Older Americans Think provides a fresh look at these groups. Are older people united in support of increasing old-age benefits—or perhaps even obsessed with their own financial self-interest, as is sometimes alleged? Do younger people tend to oppose old-age benefits? Why do aging-based political organizations attract so many members? How do Washington policymakers see the "gray lobby"? Focusing on the last decade, Christine Day offers new answers to these and other questions.

Drawing on survey data and interviews with organization leaders, congressional staff, and executive branch employees, Day presents an objective, rather than an impressionistic, view. Her findings dispel the myth that older people agree in a desire to receive expanded government benefits: they are no more likely than younger people to support more federal spending on the elderly, or to consider aging policy a highly salient issue. Day also reveals that while older people have become wealthier as a group, they have also become economically more diverse. Old-age interest groups have little control over the degree of inequality between the rich and the poor.

Originally published in 1990.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691603520
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #1092
Pages: 176
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.40(d)

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What Older Americans Think

Interest Groups and Aging Policy

By Christine L. Day


Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07825-0



OLD-AGE political organizations in the United States are thriving, and their memberships are expanding. There are more than one thousand aging-based groups in the United States at the national, state, and local levels, not including more than five thousand local chapters of national organizations. These organizations cover a wide range of policy priorities, tactics and strategies, ideological preferences, and informal partisan affiliations.

The elderly themselves are a rapidly growing and politically salient sector of the population. The sixty-five-and-over population grew twice as fast as the rest of the population during the last two decades, with the eighty-five-and-over group growing even faster. The older population growth will reach even higher proportions as the "baby boom" generation ages. As most of these older people retire, they have more leisure time for political activity, and many are indeed politically active.

Older people have enjoyed a wide variety of policy gains and program expansions during the past few decades, and have fared better than most other groups during the domestic budget reductions of the 1980s (e.g., Lammers 1983; Rauch 1987). Public opinion polls show the elderly to be a highly popular and legitimate recipient group. At the same time, some politicians and journalists are beginning to complain that the elderly are too powerful, and their programs too immune to the budget cuts necessary to eliminate the federal deficit (e.g., Longman 1985; Samuelson 1981). Politicians, journalists, and scholars, as a result, are paying increasing attention to aging-based political organizations.

How have old-age political organizations representing a diverse collection of people become such a visible political force? This book traces the evolution of elderly interest groups from their beginnings as part of a diffuse social movement, to stable organizations, to major policy actors—with an emphasis on the contemporary politics of aging. Citizen participation through mass membership organizations is the primary focus, although other interest groups dealing with old-age policy are discussed as well. The study links the three broad theoretical themes that dominate interest group research but are generally treated separately: (i) group origin and maintenance, (2) group power and influence, and (3) constituency representation by interest groups.

V. O. Key (1961) observed that the connections are tenuous between public opinion, interest groups, and governmental institutions. Today—following the advent of the "advocacy explosion" spawning thousands of new political organizations and the widespread use of mass communications techniques for political purposes (Berry 1984)—these connections are more complex than ever. But if interest groups are little understood, they are still widely disparaged. Politicians delight in claiming to represent "the American people" while chiding their opponents for "catering to the special interests." Such claims play on the sentiment that in the politics of interest groups, certain groups enjoy special privileges that are denied to other people.

Are organized interests selfish, narrow, and systematically biased? Or are they the most efficient, equitable, and democratic way of articulating concerns and involving citizens in politics? They are neither; interest groups do not exist in a political vacuum, and both stereotypes are too simple-minded. Voluntary associations are simply one part of the complex American political system, and they perform a number of important functions within that system—transmitting information between constituents and policy makers, integrating individuals into the political system, and mobilizing people around issues they may otherwise pass off as personal rather than political problems.

Political organizations are an important channel for focused, collective action. They provide "continuity and predictability to social processes that would otherwise be episodic and uncertain" (Wilson 1973:7). They remain on the political scene to replace or supplement social movements, helping to work out precise solutions to vaguely articulated goals, and protecting group-based political gains that have ceased to be prominent because they are now taken largely for granted (Hardin 1982:: 208–10; Costain and Costain 1983: 214). They not only articulate citizen interests to government, but also socialize and provide political information to citizens, thus serving as intermediaries communicating in both directions (Berger 1981: 9–10).

The influence that interest groups have over policy, the factors leading to their creation and survival, and the accuracy with which they represent citizens' interests are important to the study of interest groups in a democracy. This study of older Americans, and the interest groups that represent them, explores these aspects of group representation and political power.


Since the birth of the nation, groups have been a major focus of political discourse, recognized as both necessary and dangerous to democracy. James Madison wrote in The Federalist Papers about the "mischiefs of faction," the danger of selfish interest groups working against the good of the community as a whole. Curtailing freedom of expression and freedom of association was a cure worse than the disease, Madison believed. Instead, the multitude of competing and overlapping interests, the republican form of government, and the checks and balances written into the proposed constitution, would help prevent any one faction from dominating the others.

Alexis de Tocqueville, the astute observer of early nineteenth century America during the Jacksonian era, noted the propensity of Americans to form associations—an important asset for preventing the "tyranny of the majority" or the rise of a despot in a democratic society. Tocqueville, like Madison, recognized the potential for divisiveness and anarchy in a faction-ridden society. What obviates these dangers in the United States, in addition to the diversity of competing and overlapping groups, is a deeply rooted political consensus, in which "differences of opinion are mere differences of hue" (1945: pt. I, chap. 10; see also Berger 1981: 21). This consensus, said Tocqueville, preserves the peaceful and legal activity of political groups, in contrast to Europe, where wider differences in opinion promote factional violence and authoritarianism.

Groups again became a major focus of political study in the twentieth century, beginning with Arthur F. Bentley (1908), who described all of government and politics as the interaction of groups. David B. Truman expanded the theory in The Governmental Process (1971), an exhaustive study of political group interaction, overlap, and competition. Organized political activity, according to Truman, arises when a group's interests are threatened or disturbed; but the multiple and often competing interests of group members temper and moderate organizational behavior. Truman's book, first published in 1951, turned the focus of political science from the study of governmental institutions and formal laws to the study of dynamic political activity, giving rise to the pluralism that dominated the literature in the 1950s and early 1960s.

The existence and diverse influences of a wide variety of groups are central to the pluralist view of American politics, exemplified by the theoretical and empirical work of Robert Dahl during this period (e.g. 1956, 1961). Politics in the United States, according to the pluralist perspective, is characterized by dispersion of power at the elite and mass levels; competition and bargaining over specific, pragmatic goals; and responsiveness of decision makers to a broad range of interests and to the electorate at large. No single class or narrow elite dominates the political process (Polsby 1980; Garson 1978: 24; Berger 1981: 21). Pluralist theory and empirical studies contradict those of the elite and stratification theorists like C. Wright Mills (1956), who asserted that a few wealthy and powerful individuals dominate American politics.

Political scientists have continued to study groups through the 1980s, with many writers examining and describing the biases of group political activity. Those who deny that a ruling class or a power elite dominates America still perceive that broad classes of citizens lack influence in the policy process. Whether studying the number and types of interest groups, the internal dynamics of groups and membership incentives, or the influence of groups in the policy-making process, many scholars have reached the same general conclusion: interest group politics tends to favor narrow producer groups and affluent individuals. Broad and diffuse publics, and the poor or disadvantaged, on the other hand, seem to have a more difficult time organizing to influence public policy.

Scholars have found many reasons for the dominance of narrow, privileged groups, and for perpetuation of the status quo, in American politics. Small and affluent groups, business groups in particular, possess the wealth and insider status conducive to successful lobbying (Schattschneider 1960; Bachrach 1967). The fragmented nature of groups and of American political institutions promotes incremental policies and narrow goals over broad-based and innovative solutions, such as universal health care and social welfare (Bachrach and Baratz 1962; McConnell 1966). Decentralized political arrangements favor local producers over broad national constituencies (McConnell 1966; Kesselman 1982). Ambiguous laws and government subsidies for nar row, established interest groups offer these groups many opportunities to help direct policy implementation (Lowi 1979). All of these characteristics have enabled the existing private organizations to form alliances with specialized congressional committees and administrative agencies, to further their mutual causes (Lowi 1979; McFarland 1987).

The organizational disadvantages of broad and diffuse constituencies exist at the individual level as well. Olson (1965) introduced the "collective action" problem based on rational choice theory. Rational, self-interested individuals have no reason to join mass-based political organizations merely for political reasons. They can enjoy the fruits of organizational success whether they participate or not; they can, in Olson's words, be "free riders." Retirees, for example, receive Social Security benefit increases whether or not they worked with the organizations advocating the Social Security legislation. The motivation for organization membership, therefore, is the offer of individual incentives, not collective goods; political lobbying becomes simply "a byproduct of whatever function this organization performs that enables it to have a captive membership" (Olson 1965: 132). Small groups with narrow, specific goals, on the other hand, are in a better position to organize members for political action. The probability of contributing individually to the group's success motivates small-group members.

Subsequent collective action theorists have expanded on Olson's model to try to explain why collective political action might be rational after all. Margolis's social choice model (1982), for example, posits that each person's internal utility function contains both a self-interest component ("S-Smith") and a group-interest component ("G-Smith"). While S-Smith responds to the offer of individual selective benefits, G-Smith responds to the offer of group benefits, particularly if group ideology explains "how the goals the group seeks are actually in the interests of society at large" or of a "class of individuals who are ... especially deserving" (Margolis 1982: 100).

Rationality need not always be individual or private. Muller and Opp's "public goods model" stipulates that people may "recognize that what is individually rational is collectively irrational—that if people like themselves were individually rational free riders, the likelihood of the success of rebellious collective action would be very small," and therefore "it is collectively rational for all to participate" (Muller and Opp 1986: 484). Collective rationality is enhanced for potential participants when "'enough others' have already joined to make it viable" (Chong 1987: 34). Collective action is also more crucial when the public good is unobtainable privately—clean air, for example—than when a substitute for the good—public education, for example—is available through the private market (Hardin 1982: 73; McLean 1986: 386).

Upper and upper-middle classes still enjoy the organizational advantage, however, even assuming collective action is rational. Participation in Margolis's individual model is a superior good: as income in creases, the fraction allocated to the group-oriented G-Smith also increases, relative to the resources spent on S-Smith's personal needs. S-Smith must eat, in other words, before G-Smith can contribute to the common good (Margolis 1982: 41). Collective goods such as clean air also tend to be superior goods; the wealthy can spend a higher portion of their resources on such benefits (Hardin 1982: 69).

How, then, do political organizations, especially those with broad and diffuse constituencies, emerge and survive? The answer, for proponents of "exchange theory," lies primarily in the efforts of group leaders, or "entrepreneurs" (Salisbury 1969; Weissman 1970; Wilson 1973). The exchange framework focuses on the market-like exchange of incentives for organization membership and participation. Like business entrepreneurs, political group leaders offer a variety of incentives, attracting members by appealing to their diverse motives and needs. The most widely used typology of incentives is that developed by Clark and Wilson (1961): material, solidary, and purposive. Material incentives are tangible, having monetary value, such as product discounts or publications; solidary incentives provide the opportunity to socialize with other group members; and purposive incentives pro vide the political or ideological satisfaction of supporting a cause. Selective incentives, therefore, need not be tangible or material; a member joining a group for intangible rewards may still fit into Olson's rational choice framework. Thus, free ridership is not as great a problem as Olson implied, even for large groups with largely noneconomic goals (Cook 1984: 412; Hansen 1985: 94; Moe 1981: 537).

Exchange theory helps to explain how lower-class or disadvantaged persons, with few resources and little time to contribute to political organizations, might still be induced to join and participate. Such people would be most likely to respond to material incentives "that are immediately and directly available and of high value to the recipients" (Wilson 1973: 64). Political incentives are most likely to attract lower-class participants if they are sporadic and require few verbal and technical skills, for example, mass rallies or parades (Weissman 1970: 93–94). Yet even entrepreneurs who successfully recruit lower-class members often have to be more responsive to their affluent members in planning political goals and strategies. Members who join principally for purposive reasons are the ones who pressure their group leaders on political matters—and these members tend to come from the middle and upper classes (Moe 1980: 74). Furthermore, "emerging and dependent social groups" are particularly vulnerable to manipulation by charismatic leaders, whose organizations are inherently unstable (Pinner et al. 1959: 275–79).

Interest groups are not dependent solely on membership support for their existence and survival. For many political organizations, membership size and contributions are less crucial to their survival than support from outside patrons, including private foundations, government agencies, and philanthropists. Indeed, many lobbying groups are "staff" organizations with patronage support and few or no real members (Berry 1977; Walker 1983). Many groups with constituencies that are broad, diffuse, and difficult to organize manage to survive with the help of such financial support, although these are not the only types of organizations that receive outside assistance. Thus, the increasing sources of patronage have contributed to the expansion of the interest group universe during the last few decades.


Excerpted from What Older Americans Think by Christine L. Day. Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • CONTENTS, pg. vii
  • CHAPTER 1. Introduction, pg. 3
  • CHAPTER 2. The Rise of Old-Age Interest Groups, pg. 14
  • CHAPTER 3. Political Attitudes of the Elderly, pg. 36
  • CHAPTER 4. Old-Age Interest Group Survival, pg. 63
  • CHAPTER 5. Interest Groups and Aging Policy, pg. 80
  • CHAPTER 6. Who Represents the Elderly?, pg. 112
  • CHAPTER 7. Conclusion, pg. 131
  • APPENDIX: Survey Questions and Coding of Variables, pg. 139
  • BIBLIOGRAPHY, pg. 145
  • INDEX, pg. 159

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