The wealth of U.S. billionaires has grown tremendously during the pandemic, and the increase in their wealth alone could pay for a majority of President Joe Biden’s new infrastructure and jobs plan, finds a new report by Americans for Tax Fairness (ATF) and the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS).
Between March of 2020 and now, the 719 U.S. billionaires’ collective wealth has grown by 55 percent, finds the report. Their combined wealth grew from $2.95 trillion to $4.56 trillion, a growth of $1.62 trillion. Just the increase in their wealth, the report says, could cover almost 70 percent of Biden’s new $2.25 trillion American Jobs Plan to create jobs and invest in infrastructure across the U.S.
“Billionaire wealth growth has perversely accelerated over the 13 months of [the] global pandemic. But the piling up of fortunes at the top has proceeded at a rapid clip for decades even as the net worth of working Americans lagged and public services deteriorated,” the report reads. “Tax reforms of the type proposed by President Biden would begin to reverse these damaging trends.”
The wealth of people worth over $100 billion, who the report calls “centi-billionaires,” grew hand over fist during the pandemic. The report finds that Elon Musk’s wealth has increased, staggeringly, nearly sixfold during the pandemic to $172 billion; the wealth of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos grew by 74 percent during the last 13 months to total nearly $197 billion; and Mark Zuckerberg’s wealth more than doubled in a little over a year to $113.5 billion.
Meanwhile, some of the CEOs who have profited the most from the pandemic treat their workers the worst. The Brookings Institute found that, of 13 major retail companies that have experienced pandemic windfalls, Amazon and Walmart are among the companies that compensate their workers the worst while forcing them to work through dangerous conditions as frontline workers. The Walton family, with more than half of Walmart’s shares, has also grown their wealth during the pandemic, the ATF and IPS report finds.
Although the pandemic rapidly accelerated the growth of billionaires’ accumulated wealth, ATF and IPS write that this is a continuation of a trend that’s been ongoing for over 30 years. Since 1990, the report says, billionaires’ wealth has grown nineteenfold. Adjusting for inflation, billionaires have increased their wealth from $240 billion in 1990 to $4.56 trillion in 2021. More than a third of that came from the pandemic alone.
Back in 1990, the bottom 50 percent of the U.S. had more collective wealth than billionaires, by a $140 billion margin, the report says. But, because of the continued accumulation of wealth at the top, U.S. billionaires now own over 4.5 times the amount of wealth as those who make up the bottom 50 percent of the economic scale, or roughly 165 million Americans.
The wealth gap before the pandemic was already large and widening, but wealth inequality has also drastically increased during the course of just over a year. Lawmakers like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) say that proposals like a wealth tax on the ultrarich could help to close some of these inequities while raising tax revenue.
In his infrastructure bill, Biden has proposed a corporate tax increase from 21 to 28 percent. The Department of the Treasury says that the hike will raise more than enough money to cover the entire proposal. But a 28 percent corporate tax rate is still lower than what it was before then-President Donald Trump slashed it in 2017; under Barack Obama, the corporate tax rate was 35.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) has proposed raising the corporate tax rate back to pre-Trump rates as many Democrats and progressives have lambasted large corporations for paying zero dollars in federal income taxes. Meanwhile, progressives have said that wide support for the proposals in Biden’s infrastructure bill suggests that Biden can and should be more ambitious with the bill.