Skip to main content

On MLK day, helping the unemployed is a moral issue

By Raphael G. Warnock
January 20, 2014 -- Updated 1449 GMT (2249 HKT)
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.

Opinion: For women, equal pay and economic justice are civil rights issues

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.

Lessons with MLK: Eight students recall a special class

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."

March on Washington remembered
O'Malley: Extend unemployment benefits
GOP image problem over jobless benefits

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.

The greatest MLK speeches you never heard

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.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

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

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT