Tale of Two Crises: Billionaires Gain as Workers Feel Pandemic Pain

Americans for Tax Fairness

Nation’s Billionaire’s See Net Worth Jump $434B in First Two Months of Pandemic

America’s billionaires bound far ahead financially even as the rest of America was locked down during the first two months of the coronavirus pandemic, a new report by Americans for Tax Fairness (ATF) and the Institute for Policy Studies – Program on Inequality (IPS) shows.

Between March 18—the rough start date of the pandemic shutdown, when most federal and state economic restrictions were in place—and May 19, the total net worth of the 600-plus U.S. billionaires jumped by $434 billion or 15%, based on the group’s analysis of Forbes data. The billionaires’ worth rose from $2.948 trillion to $3.382 trillion.

The top five U.S. billionaires—Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett and Larry Ellison—saw their wealth grow by a total of $75.5 billion, or 19%. Together they captured 21% of the total wealth growth of all 600-plus billionaires in the last two months. The fortunes of Bezos and Zuckerberg together grew by nearly $60 billion, or 14% of the $434 billion total. In March there were 614 billionaires on the Forbes list, and 630 two months later, including newcomer Kanye West at $1.3 billion.

During that same approximate period, more than 38 million working Americans lost their jobs, nearly 1.5 million Americans fell ill with the virus and almost 90,000 died from it.

Among other COVID-19 victims are the more than 16 million Americans who have likely lost employer-provided healthcare coverage. Low-wage workers, people of color and women have suffered disproportionately in the combined medical and economic crises. Billionaires are overwhelmingly white men.

Decades of tax cuts for the rich have fueled the growth of billionaires and their wealth. And even in the midst of the greatest national emergency since World War II, tax handouts to the wealthy have continued—most recently in the form of the “Millionaires Giveaway” slipped into the CARES pandemic relief law enacted in late March. The recently passed House HEROES Act would repeal this tax break that is giving an average tax cut of $1.6 million this year to 43,000 millionaires and billionaires, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation. JCT estimates closing this loophole would raise $246 billion, which could be used for pandemic relief.

“The pandemic has revealed the deadly consequences of America’s yawning wealth gap, and billionaires are the glaring symbol of that economic inequality,” declared Frank Clemente, ATF’s executive director. “Immediately, the ‘Millionaires Giveaway’ should be repealed and the $250 billion raised used to rescue struggling families and communities. Post-pandemic, the rich and corporations must begin to pay their fair share of taxes so we can build a society that works for everyone, not just billionaires and others at the top.”

“The surge in billionaire wealth during a global pandemic underscores the grotesque nature of unequal sacrifice,” said Chuck Collins, director of the IPS Program on Inequality and co-author of the Billionaire Bonanza 2020 report. “While millions risk their lives and livelihoods as first responders and front line workers, these billionaires benefit from an economy and tax system that is wired to funnel wealth to the top.”

Wealth growth of other select billionaires in the top 30 on the Forbes May 19 list are below.

Sources: All data analyzed by ATF and IPS is from Forbes and available here.
March 18, 2020, data is from the Forbes World’s Billionaires List: The Richest in 2020.
May 19, 2020 data was taken from Forbes real-time estimates of worth that day.

  • Americans for Tax Fairness