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‘Render Unto Athena’ Can Help Solve Athens’ Crippling Poverty Problem

Recently, in the course of my master’s of divinity studies at Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School, I had cause to consider Matthew 22:21—Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” While reading this, I was pondering my hometown of Athens and the Trump Administration’s tax reform bill, and a rhetorical question occurred to me that some locals and I are planning to answer with a campaign. The question is, to whom should we render the tribute which Caesar has decided to return?

In my deliberations, it struck me that we have a historic opportunity with the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Historic not in the sense that the bill’s drafters intended, but rather in terms of a response that is available to us. For, what if I told you that, by virtue of this bill, we could raise $84 million over the next seven years? Would you go on reading?

Passed by Congress in December, The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act promises a 2.2 percent surplus in after-tax revenue for individuals and families. You may have noticed this surplus already, in the form of a modest increase in your paychecks. Those earning between $25,000–$48,000 will see an average annual return of $320, or approximately $6 per week. Those earning between $48,000 and $84,000 will receive $780, or approximately $15 per week, and on and on, with the benefit increasing as incomes continue to rise.

Here’s the shocker: With over 44,000 households in Athens, each benefiting proportionately from this bill, there will be, at minimum, an additional $12 million of income per year over the course of the seven years that individuals will get tax breaks. Assuming this community committed to collecting this unexpected income (rather than exhausting it on individual means), over the course of the seven years that this tax break is in effect, we would have raised $84 million.

Of course, each of us has as our unquestioned right the ability to direct these dollars in the manner of our choosing. But along with this right, we also have the obligation to explore the hidden costs of such an unexpected windfall. In other words, conscience compels us to inquire into the as-yet-unrecognized expense of this bill, because the one thing that we do know for certain is that there is no such thing as “free money” in the United States. Creative accounting we might believe in, but we cannot materialize money in a capitalist economy. And, therefore, it is my belief that it is the principle of “trickle down” economics which is being tested with the passage of this bill.

Undergirding any tax “relief” like the Trump Administration’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is an assumption upon which all of us are expected to live but which few of us have explicitly named. Specifically, there is a guiding assumption in “trickle down” economics that governs the thinking of its proponents, that the government should not have to perform what individual charity can accomplish. It is the expectation of the crafters of such bills that charity will increase with the return of such monies. However, it is the experience of the crafters, and the beneficiaries of such legislation, that self-interest can be an overpowering force.

By my reckoning, this is actually a benefit, because my appeal is directly to our own self-interest. The only difference is a manner of degree, and my “self-interest” of concern is a collective one.

I believe that there is a storm brewing right now that we would be wise to hedge ourselves against. The fact of the matter is that our tax “relief” is coming at the cost of cuts to housing, health care and education. Given that there is no way to defund these essential services and not expect a worsening of poverty, it is the case that with a near 30 percent poverty rate, excluding students, we must admit our particular vulnerability in Athens. The question is, what shall we do, then, with this unexpected income?

As a town, we have committed ourselves to a narrative about ourselves that would suggest that we’d leap at such an opportunity as this. The fact of the matter is that we can raise $84 million over the next seven years. The question that remains is whether or not we will, and to what lengths we’ll go to excuse ourselves from participating.

But if we all did, if we all realized that $6 per household per week could raise $84 million over seven years, then we’d be sitting on a community endowment whose revenues we, as a community, could direct. In so raising such a sum, we could have made a statement to ourselves and built up a hedge of protection for our community.

And so the answer is simple: “Render it unto Athena,” that she, and we, might be protected.