Over the last six months, roughly 3 out of 4 members of America’s 10-digit-wealth club have seen a rise in their net worths. Sixteen American billionaires are worth at least twice as much now as they were in March. And Jeff Bezos, who was already worth $113 billion at the start of 2020, is heading into the year’s final stretch $73 billion richer, according to data from Forbes analyzed by the progressive groups Americans for Tax Fairness and the Institute for Policy Studies.
The same data shows that Michael Bloomberg and Charles Koch are both up by $7 billion, and Mark Zuckerberg has added another $46 billion to his already staggering $54 billion in wealth. Elon Musk found time between COVID truther tweets and CPAP machine donations to take his fortune from $25 billion to $92 billion.
Some billionaires have gotten richer as a direct result of the pandemic. Amazon, for example, was one of the few companies in the United States to expand as consumers locked down at home and avoided brick-and-mortar retail. Facebook, Google, Tesla and Microsoft have also boomed in the past six months, adding to the fortunes of their respective billionaire founders.
Most billionaires, however, have grown their wealth not as business leaders but as investors. One of the ongoing mysteries of the COVID-19 recession is why it has — so far at least — barely touched the stock market. After falling roughly 35% in February, both the Dow Jones and the S&P 500 returned to pre-pandemic levels in just 126 trading days, a turnaround that may be the fastest ever recorded.
Others benefited directly from government relief funds, a significant portion of which went to large companies. Musk is among the billionaires who have increased their wealth by attracting investors who are betting that their companies will come out of the recession stronger than when they went in.
There are also larger forces at play. The pandemic wealth gap is a culmination of America’s decadeslong trend of increasing inequality. Since 1980, taxes on billionaires have fallen 79%. Unions, which help workers negotiate for a larger share of profits, represented roughly 1 in 4 workers in 1979, but now represent only 1 in 10.
Nor is this the first time the wealthy have benefited from an economic disaster. After the 2008 recession, billionaires not only restored their wealth within three years, they managed to nearly double it again by 2018. The bottom 80% of income earners still haven’t recovered.
Whatever the long- and short-term reasons, though, the net worth of the wealthiest Americans is becoming increasingly unmoored from conditions in the country around them. Just over 11 million Americans lost their jobs between February and August 2020. Thirty-nine states have lost more jobs in 2020 than they did during the Great Recession. But as workers lose their jobs and struggle to pay rent, their bosses and landlords are still, somehow, winning big.
WebAR experience produced by Rebecca Zisser.