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10 richest billionaires doubled their wealth during pandemic, Oxfam says

How wealthiest Americans pay little in taxes
How the 25 wealthiest Americans can pay little to no federal income taxes 07:33

The world's 10 richest billionaires have doubled their wealth since the COVID-19 pandemic started in early 2020, with inequality now reaching "outrageous" levels, according to anti-poverty charity Oxfam. 

At the same time, the bottom 99% of humanity — including middle- and lower-income households — lost income during the crisis due to layoffs, economic uncertainty, and increased caretaking due to closed schools and illnesses caused by COVID-19, the group said in a new report. Women and people of color are among those who bore the brunt of the economic impact of the crisis, the study noted. 

The world's 10 richest men saw their wealth double, from $700 billion to $1.5 trillion, during the pandemic — a rate of $15,000 per second, Oxfam said. Nine of the 10 are Americans, including tech titans such as Tesla founder Elon Musk and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who are worth $264 billion and $187 billion, respectively. 

The stock market's strong performance during the pandemic, with equities hitting record highs in recent weeks, has helped buoy the fortunes of the nation's richest people.

"The gap between the rich and the poor was increasing even before the pandemic started," said Irit Tamir, director of Oxfam's private sector development. "But the pandemic supercharged this in a whole host of ways."

In Oxfam's view, rising inequality poses risks to billions of people across the world, who aren't sharing in the same gains in wealth and may be cut off from equal access to health care, vaccines and economic opportunity. Inequality between rich and poor countries is expected to grow for the first time in a generation, Oxfam said, with poor countries facing higher death rates from COVID-19 due to lack of vaccine access. 

"We are in an even more outrageous situation than we were last year or the year before," Tamir said.

Oxfam is releasing the report to coincide with the World Economic Forum's Davos conference, which will be virtual this year. The group's annual report has long highlighted widening inequality, yet those trends have only accelerated in recent years. 

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It's not only the nation's billionaires that have enjoyed huge growth in their fortunes. The number of households in the U.S. with wealth of more than $50 million surged more than 70% to 63,505, from 2016 to 2021, Oxfam. found. Their combined wealth jumped more than 50% to $12.8 trillion. 

"Wealth is begetting wealth, and it becomes exponential," Tamir said. "I fear by next year those numbers will only continue to increase and that gap will only widen."

A new Gilded Age

The widening gap between the richest Americans and everyone else has been well documented, prompting some lawmakers to propose a wealth tax that would impact the nation's billionaires. Yet the proposal has stalled, even as 6 in 10 Americans say they believe the rich don't pay enough in taxes, according to Pew. 

The globe's 2,750 billionaires are now wealthier than half the planet, according to a recent report from a group founded by economist Thomas Piketty. The wealth gap is roughly as wide as it was more than a century ago when the Gilded Age led to massive disparities between rich and poor, the report found. 

Although the U.S. is a wealthy nation overall, that hasn't protected the poorest Americans from falling behind the poor in other nations. For instance, 50% of the poorest Americans possess less wealth than the poorest half of China's citizens, Piketty's researchers found.

Oxfam said its findings should serve as an argument for a wealth tax on billionaires, with the new tax revenue invested in the health and education of children. 

"Inequality isn't good for anybody — it's not good for the rich either," Tamir said, citing that the report's forward is written by Disney heiress Abigail Disney, who has become a de facto spokeswoman for higher taxes on the rich and better wages for workers

In the forward, Disney wrote that she believes inequality is widening after years of weakened support for unions and changes in regulations that were meant to protect ordinary Americans. Lawmakers have cut taxes on the richest earners since the 1980s with the idea they would use the extra income to create jobs and economic opportunity, yet research has found that hasn't happened — and the tax cuts only helped the rich.

"Society was riddled with cracks when we started this pandemic — cracks which have widened into fault lines," Disney wrote. "There is more than enough money to solve most of the world's problems. It's just being held in the hands of millionaires and billionaires who aren't paying their fair share."

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