Pandemic Has Been a Bonanza for Billionaires

Off the Charts: The Visual Says It All

Couple smiling on deck of luxury yacht
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Gary John Norman / Getty Images

A $700 billion loss may seem like a terrible misfortune, but to the nation’s billionaires, it was just a bump on the road to unimaginable riches.

Although U.S. billionaires took a 7.8% hit to their collective holdings between February 2019 and March 2020 (when the pandemic first struck), with their wealth falling from $3.2 trillion to $2.95 trillion, they gained it back and then some over the next 13 months, according to an analysis of data from the Forbes real-time billionaire list by the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive organization. The chart below shows just how small the setback was compared to the massive gains that followed.

The pandemic economy has led to what experts describe as a “K-shaped” recovery, with the financial fortunes of the haves and the have-nots rocketing in opposite directions. While on the wrong side of the “K,” low-wage jobs have yet to recover from the pandemic, the wealth of the upper half is being launched into the stratosphere. The growing inequality has led progressive Democrats like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren to call for a wealth tax on the ultra-rich. 

While it may not come as a surprise that billionaires like Amazon founder Jeff Bezos—whose company became indispensable (and vastly more profitable) during pandemic lockdowns—have reaped big dividends, inequality activists point out that the staggering size of the windfall is on the scale of major national spending projects. The Institute for Policy Studies noted that the increase in billionaire wealth between March 2020 and April 2021 alone could fund 70% of President Joe Biden’s proposed 10-year, $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan.

(One caveat: calculating gains from a starting point in the depths of the pandemic’s economic downturn may distort things somewhat. But the wealth gained by billionaires between February 2019 and April 2021—$1.36 trillion—would still cover 59% of the infrastructure proposal.)