SUITLAND ——Social Security advocates had a message last week for an audience of Maryland seniors on the 77th anniversary of the federal benefits program: Let's not be the last generation to retire.
The Alliance for Retired Americans and Social Security Works attempted to enlist about 50 retirees at the Council House apartments in Suitland as part of an election-year army to spread the word about the positive impact they said Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare have had on generations of Marylanders.
Sarah Byrne, a lobbyist for the Alliance for Retired Americans, said Social Security advocates need seniors' help to fight cuts to benefits.
"Their role is really just the basic everyday conversations they have with their friends and neighbors," Byrne said.
The Alliance for Retired Americans is a union-backed group that says it promotes a "progressive political and social agenda."
"If we're not out there standing up and talking about what this program actually does and how it benefits you, your family, your friends, your neighbors … then who will?" Byrne asked the seniors.
"This is not a debate about numbers," said Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works. "This is not a debate about money. This is not a debate about the deficit or the long-term debt. This is a debate about fairness."
The effort comes as President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney spar over the future of the entitlement programs, which are consuming a growing share of the federal budget with the retirement of the baby boom generation.
Michael Levoff, a spokesman for Romney, said Obama has put Social Security at risk by failing to solve what he called the "entitlement crisis."
Romney says he would adjust Social Security by slowly increasing the retirement age and by slowing the rate at which benefits grow for wealthier retirees. Current seniors and those nearing retirement would not be affected.
Vice President Joe Biden, meanwhile, told a voter in Stuart, Va., last week that "I guarantee you, flat guarantee you, there will be no changes in Social Security" if Obama is re-elected in November.
Obama has proposed helping supplement retirement savings by automatically enrolling workers in tax-advantaged individual retirement accounts. Those who do not wish to maintain an IRA would be allowed to opt out.
In Maryland, more than 850,000 retirees, disabled workers, widows, spouses and children, or 14.7 percent of the state's population, receive monthly Social Security benefits, according to the Social Security Administration. The average monthly check for retirees across the country is $1,234, which comes to $14,808 a year.
At the Council House apartments, Byrne told the seniors that officials in Washington are meeting "behind closed doors" to find ways to cut the entitlement programs.
Maria Calderone, who has lived in the Council House apartments for eight years, said Americans should fight for the benefits they have been promised, whether from Social Security, Medicare or Medicare.
Calderone, 65, described what she said was a five-month battle to get approved for Medicare.
"I want them to know, no matter where you come from, you can at least fight for what you've earned," said Calderone, a retired homemaker. "If we don't fight for it, then we will lose it."
Jim Baldridge of Baltimore, an organizer for the Alliance for Retired Americans and a retired mechanical engineer, said his Social Security checks account for more than half of his income.
He wore a T-shirt that read "Savvy seniors vote. Vote like your life depends on it."
"It's important to understand the facts with all of the demagoguery that comes out of the stump speeches," he said.
Lawson, of Social Security Works, said the issue is bigger than one candidate or one election. He said Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are systems built by generations of Americans working together.
To talk about ending the program or restructuring it, he said, is "the height of insanity."
"It doesn't matter what letter a politician has by their name: If they're on the wrong side of Social Security, they are on the wrong side of the American people," Lawson said.
Reporter Fakhar-Ur-Rehman Durrani contributed to this article.