‘Heads we win, tails you lose’: how America’s rich have turned pandemic into profit

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As 26 million Americans lose their jobs, the billionaire class has added $308bn to its wealth

Jeff Bezos has seen his wealth increase from $105 billion to $130 billion
Jeff Bezos has seen his wealth increase from $105bn to $130bn. Photograph: Mona Chalabi

Dominic Rushe and Mona Chalabi
Sun 26 Apr 2020 05.00 EDT
Last modified on Wed 1 Jul 2020 12.36 EDT

Never let a good crisis go to waste: as the coronavirus pandemic sweeps the world, America’s 1% have taken profitable advantage of the old saying.

Some of the richest people in the US have been at the front of the queue as the government has handed out trillions of dollars to prop up an economy it shuttered amid the coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, the billionaire class has added $308bn to its wealth in four weeks – even as a record 26 million people lost their jobs.

According to a new report from the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive thinktank, between 18 March and 22 April the wealth of America’s plutocrats grew 10.5%. After the last recession, it took over two years for total billionaire wealth to get back to the levels they enjoyed in 2007.

Eight of those billionaires have seen their net worth surge by over $1bn each, including the Amazon boss, Jeff Bezos, and his ex-wife MacKenzie Bezos; Eric Yuan, founder of Zoom; the former Microsoft chief Steve Ballmer; and Elon Musk, the Tesla and SpaceX technocrat.

The billionaire bonanza comes as a flotilla of big businesses, millionaires and billionaires sail through loopholes in a $349bn bailout meant to save hard-hit small businesses. About 150 public companies managed to bag more than $600m in forgivable loans before the funds ran out. Among them was Shake Shack, a company with 6,000 employees valued at $2bn. It has since given the cash back but others have not.Advertisement

Fisher Island, a members-only location off the coast of Miami where the average income of residents is $2.2m and the beaches are made from imported Bahamian sand, has received $2m in aid.

Its residents seemed to be doing fine even before the bailout. This month, the island purchased thousands of rapid Covid-19 blood test kits for all residents and workers. The rest of Florida is struggling. About 1% of Florida’s population has been tested for the coronavirus, behind the national figure of 4%. The state is also in the midst of an unemployment claims crisis, with its underfunded benefits system unable to cope with the volume of people filing.

The banks that were the largest recipients of bailout cash in the last recession have also done well, raking in $10bn in fees from the government loans, according to an analysis by National Public Radio.

“Heads we win, tails you lose,” said Chuck Collins, director of the program on inequality and the common good at the Institute for Policy Studies and co-author of the new report.

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