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On MLK day, helping the unemployed is a moral issue

By Raphael G. Warnock
updated 9:49 AM EST, Mon January 20, 2014
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used his historic 1963 speech in Washington to address poverty and freedom.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used his historic 1963 speech in Washington to address poverty and freedom.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Rev. Raphael Warnock says restoring unemployment aid is the right thing to do
  • He calls on Congress to find its moral compass
  • Warnock wants black churches to reclaim their mission of engaging in social justice issues

Editor's note: The Rev. Raphael Warnock is senior pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the spiritual home of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He is also author of the new book, "The Divided Mind of the Black Church: Theology, Piety, and Public Witness," which explores the need for the black church to return to its original social justice mission.

(CNN) -- Congress' inaction to extend unemployment benefits to millions of struggling Americans is not only irresponsible policy, it is morally wrong.

The economy is getting better for some, but the tragic effects of reckless public policy and deregulation spurred by the disproportionate political influence of big money still linger for far too many ordinary Americans.

Congress, the elected representatives of the people, must find its moral compass, push through this unending nightmare of political gridlock and do right by the people.

Rev. Raphael Warnock
Rev. Raphael Warnock

Contrary to the silly and obsessive partisan gamesmanship that currently paralyzes our politics, much more is at stake than the next election or some empty ideological argument. On the line are the lives of decent hardworking Americans, trying to cross over into the dignity of work but still caught in the barbwire of a historic global recession.

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Some argue that unemployment benefits are a disincentive to people finding employment. But the sheer number of our unemployed neighbors and family members speaks volumes about the fallibility of such a claim. According to The Washington Post, the long-term unemployment rate has not been as high as it is now since World War II. A jaw-dropping 4 million Americans have been out of work for 27 weeks or longer. The problems we face are systemic and structural, and the vast majority of the unemployed are crippled not by a lack of interest or drive, but of opportunity and access. That's why long-term solutions for economic growth are needed.

But in the meantime, we will actually do further damage to a struggling economy if our elected officials shape public policy by the very same stereotypes and faulty assumptions that keep some unemployed in the first place. For a major reason that the unemployed cannot find work is because they are unemployed. The data show that they face bias and discrimination. If anyone has the ability to provide some relief from this vicious cycle, it is Congress, and its members should feel obligated to do so.

Moreover, those of us who are faith leaders, particularly we pastors in the African-American churches, should speak up too. Because black unemployment is twice that of whites and has been for as long as the Bureau of Labor Statistics has been keeping track by race, we have an obligation to honor our historic reason for being -- defending those on the margins of the margins.

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As we celebrate the life of the most famous black pastor, Martin Luther King Jr., we should remember that the black church mission connects faith with justice and personal salvation with social transformation, and addresses personal piety and public policy for the well-being of the whole person and the whole community. It fights for the weak and sees the Gospel as "good news to the poor."

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More than 50 years after Dr. King and others marched on Washington for jobs and freedom, African-Americans remain disproportionately unemployed and impoverished. The unemployment rate for African-Americans was at 12.5% when the Bureau of Labor Statistics released the most recent numbers last month.

Yet the fact is the black unemployment rate will undoubtedly increase if extended unemployment insurance is cut off now, adding to the devastating impact that rampant unemployment has already had on the black community for decades. And given our nation's shifting demographics, that's bad for everybody.

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Playing politics with the very unemployment insurance afforded to American workers who are now unemployed is both immoral and economically destructive.

That's why now, more than ever, we need to hear the voices of people of faith and people of good will raising the moral and practical questions about who we are to one another. And the black church -- that American church built by those who worked without wages or benefits, born fighting for freedom and thus the source of America's greatest freedom fighter -- ought to lead the way.

If we really want to honor Dr. King and protect the American promise, we must demand that Congress do the right thing for American workers and the right thing for the American economy. Do not shrink a struggling economy, putting us all at risk. Rather, extend the safety net of unemployment insurance to those who cannot help but stimulate the economy by spending it immediately on the basics of food, gas and medicine, even as we debate the best prescription for long term economic health.

It's just the right thing to do.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Raphael G. Warnock.

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