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ANALYSIS: Workers Lost $3.7 Trillion During COVID-19. The World’s Billionaires Gained That And More

(Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images for Green New Deal Network)

Dylan Housman Healthcare Reporter
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The economic devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has been well-documented, but the effects of the global coronavirus-induced recession hit the workers of the world the hardest.

The roughly 2,100 billionaires across the globe added trillions of dollars of wealth in 2020, and recovered their lost wealth from the start of the pandemic in a matter of months. Meanwhile, the working class lost trillions of dollars and worldwide poverty skyrocketed.

The top 1,000 billionaires in the world initially lost nearly a third of their wealth due to the pandemic. However, all of it was regained by November 2020, according to a report from Oxfam.

Between March and December 2020, the world’s billionaires added $3.9 trillion in wealth, Oxfam found. The 10 richest people in the world alone could cover the cost needed to vaccinate the entire global population with just the wealth they gained over those 9 months.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos added about $70 billion to his net worth during the pandemic. While that amount obviously was not added in liquid cash, it represents enough money to pay every single Amazon employee a six-figure bonus, according to Oxfam. (RELATED: President Biden Targets Amazon, Big Business In $2 Trillion Infrastructure Announcement)

Tesla founder Elon Musk gained even more. His fortune quintupled, growing by around $132 billion to make him the world’s second-richest man.

The winnings aren’t restricted to these U.S.-based billionaires. For example, billionaires in Australia doubled their collective wealth in 2020.

Stock market increases were a big driver of billionaire gains. Musk’s Tesla, for example, saw share prices rise more than 500% in the past year. Amazon’s stock price has increased more than 60% during that time.

As a whole, the S&P 500 is up about the same amount as Amazon over that time period. While the stock market dipped early on in the pandemic, derailing much of the progress made during the term of former President Donald Trump, it quickly rebounded, and continued to rise even as the overall economy struggled to recover.

One reason billionaires fared better than everyone else was their ability to take advantage of the rising stock market while workers struggled to make ends meet. When stock prices initially tanked, the rich possessed the fortitude (and means) to buy assets as their value depreciated. Once the market began to recover, they reaped the rewards. Working-class individuals were largely unable to get in while the getting was good, and were consequently left out of the recovery.

Instead, workers were bearing the brunt of the global economic crisis. According to Oxfam, somewhere between 200 million and 500 million people globally were thrust into poverty during the pandemic. An overwhelming majority of economists surveyed by the organization said they anticipate economic inequality getting worse in their countries due to the pandemic.

Globally, workers have lost about $3.7 trillion in wages during the pandemic, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). That’s about four times more than was lost during the late 2000’s financial crisis, and is remarkably close to the amount of wealth added by the world’s billionaires during the same time period.

According to the ILO, a majority of the working hours that were lost were a result of inactivity, not unemployment. In other words, workers primarily lost out on income not because they were fired or laid off, but because they were rendered unable to work by things like coronavirus shutdowns or illness. (RELATED: CDC Director Says ‘Now Is Not The Time’ To Lift Lockdowns Despite Decline In Coronavirus Cases And Deaths)

Employment loss was highest among young people, particularly those aged 15-24. The young and undereducated were hit the hardest due to the sectors that saw the most job losses. Nine of the 10 industries hardest hit were in the service category, like restaurants and hospitality.

Not all was bad for middle- and working-class people: The number of individual bankruptcies filed in the United States fell by a substantial amount in 2020. Economists generally attribute that to government interventions like the national eviction moratorium put in place by the Trump administration and extended by President Joe Biden, but they also warn it could lead to a surge in bankruptcies down the road once those policies are ended.

Parenting continued to be economically challenging during the pandemic, too. Low-income households with children were the most likely to experience income shock during the coronavirus recession, according to the Brookings Institution. The liberal think tank also found the rate of food insecurity in households with children doubled between 2018 and mid-2020. (RELATED: Data Shows ‘Substantial’ Declines In Birth Rates During Coronavirus)

Job losses were experienced by high-wage earners too, but not nearly as often. Low-wage workers lost their jobs at around eight times the rate that high-earners did, according to The Washington Post. Those high-wage jobs also returned faster, with many white-collar jobs being regained by mid- to late 2020.

The plight of hospitality and service workers has been evident for some time since pandemic shutdowns began. Small businesses have died by the thousands, and millions of Americans have struggled to make ends meet with state and local governments restricting where, and how much, they can work. One of the most striking things about the pandemic isn’t just how badly it has hurt the working class, but the chasm between the experience of workers and the billionaires who employ many of them.