The AARP is America's largest special interest organization, representing over half of the over-50 population in the nation. The AARP has acted on behalf of its members for over half a century and has advocated for reform on social and financial issues at both the state and federal level.
The forerunner of the AARP was founded in 1947 by Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus as the National Retired Teachers Association. A retired high school principal herself, Andrus believed that retirees could, and should, lead active lives as well as be able to afford basic insurance. In 1958, the association became the American Association of Retired Persons and opened membership up to residents of all 50 states. In 1999, the AARP expanded by offering membership benefits to people over 50, even if they are not yet retired.
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The AARP is considered a special interest group because of its advocacy on behalf of members on a number of important social and financial issues. It has lobbied the federal and state governments on issues such as Social Security reform and the extension of Medicare prescription coverage, commonly called Medicare Part D. THe AARP also lobbies on behalf of retired and older people world wide, building a coalition of associated non governmental organizations (NGOs) and is retained as a counselor to the United Nations' Economic and Social Council, GINA--a Geneva-based group concerned with aging issues--and other organizations in Europe and elsewhere.
The AARP is also a non-partisan advocacy group that offers information on political issues to its members. As a non-profit, non-partisan group, the AARP has never endorsed or contributed to the campaign of any elected official. It does, however, take sides in issues concerning Medicare, Social Security and other issues it advocates for. The AARP has been designated a 501(c)(4) group by the IRS; this designation means that the AARP is considered a not-for-profit advocacy group that agitates for social welfare issues.
In the 1980s, the AARP came under scrutiny of Republican Senator Alan Simpson. Simpson believed that the AARP was abusing its status as a non-profit organization and was being run to make money for then-leader Leonard Davis. The investigation found no evidence of wrong-doing on the part of Davis or the AARP and the matter was dropped.
Currently, the AARP offers insurance, financial planning and investment, discounts on travel and services, as well as information on political issues for its members. The AARP negotiates with corporations, insurance carriers, and travel organizations in order to secure these discounts, but is not affiliated with the organizations beyond that. There is some controversy over the financial services offered by AARP Financial, however, as some people assume that AARP Financial is a wholly-owned subsidiary or a direct affiliate of the AARP in some way. According to the AARP's website, however, the company known as AARP Financial, Inc., is not affiliated with the AARP but merely is licensed to use the AARP name in the conduct of its business for the AARP.