01/17/2012 12:21 pm ET Updated Mar 18, 2012

In Dr. King's America the Unemployed Deserve Simple Human Dignity

As our Congress members return to Washington to resume the debate on helping the unemployed just weeks before that extension expires, I hope they find great inspiration from this week's holiday honoring Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

Reverend King's legacy does not belong to just one epoch. Just as the lessons of Moses have taught the generations that followed, the teachings of Martin Luther King inspire us today as they did decades ago when he delivered his holy words. The striking monument only recently unveiled on the National Mall is lined with quotes that exhort us to be driven by justice, tireless and unwavering in pursuit of a better world. They remind us that King's calls for justice were universal, including economic justice. "I have the audacity to believe," reads one inscription, "that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits."

For many today, as when he first spoke those words in 1964, that belief remains audacious. Despite another 200,000 new jobs created last month, unemployed applicants still outnumber job openings by about four to one. For those millions unable to find employment in jobs that do not exist, merely waiting it out is not an option. House payments are still due, food and medicine must still be purchased, and cars still need gas. For them, unemployment insurance is a lifeline. These payments help cover existing expenses while they continue to look for work. In 2010, federal and state unemployment benefits kept 3.2 million people out of poverty.

Keeping so many, including about one million children, out of dire straits is success not so much regarding statistics, but success in helping our neighbors stay well-fed, healthy, and sheltered. For those who like overarching answers and statistics, unemployment insurance is intrinsic to sustaining our economy's fragile recovery. Spending on food or clothing helps local retailers. Unemployment insurance enables the continuation of exactly the kind of local spending that encourages small business to increase inventory and make new hires.

Cutting these benefits or limiting who can get them, as some suggest we do, will not create jobs. Instead, it will hurt businesses, halt the economy, and hamstring would-be workers. It is hard to find employment when, unable to afford the payments or even just gas, one has to sell his or her car.

Yet in spite of all this, Congress came close to letting this basic insurance expire for almost two million Americans at the end of last year. What a tense time that was for so many who were simply seeking three square meals a day while they searched for work. The economic recovery requires confidence. Businesses that are confident they will have customers tomorrow and consumers confident that they can spend on necessities without having to choose leaving their home or putting off doctors' visits keeps money flowing in our communities.

But what we are getting from Congress is anything but confidence. Instead, those who are out of work received a temporary patch that postponed the fight until Congress returns next week. Here again, our elected officials would do well to spend some time walking around Reverend King's memorial feeling the power of his wisdom and his character, of our potential.

The unemployed and their challenges are challenges for every one of us in America. As the great Reverend King said, "Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality."

In our generation, as in past and future generations, Congress must listen to Martin Luther King. Temporary extensions or stalled battles are not solutions. We have the opportunity to help, to prevent the completely avoidable slide into poverty and hunger for those looking each day to return to work. A full one year extension to weather the slow recovery is the right thing to do for our economy, it is the right thing to do for families and individuals who should not have to ask for help, and it is the right thing to do for the pursuit of justice. How can the greatest nation in the history of the world do one iota less?