The COVID-19 pandemic turned out to be a great business opportunity for the world’s ultra-wealthy. In 2020, the world added 660 billionaires, a record 493 of whom are first-timers, according to Forbes’ latest annual billionaire rankings released Tuesday.
As of March 5, the world had 2,755 individuals with fortunes of over $1 billion. The U.S. had the most billionaires, at 724. China, including Hong Kong and Macao, came as a close second with 698 billionaires. Skyrocketing stock and cryptocurrencies, as well as rapid-fire public offerings, made founders and CEOs wealthier than ever. As a class, the world’s billionaires’ total net worth grew by a whopping $5.1 trillion in 2020 to $13.1 trillion.
Amazon founder and outgoing CEO Jeff Bezos claimed the top spot on Forbes’ list for the fourth year in a row, with a net worth of $177 billion. SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk climbed from the 31st on last year’s list to No.2 this year after a blockbuster year for Tesla stock and SpaceX valuation jump.
In contrast, tens of millions of Americans lost their jobs—and half a million their lives—during the pandemic. Even those who managed to stay alive and employed saw only small changes in their income. In 2020, the median household income in the U.S. was $68,400, up 8 percent from 2019. Their actual pay raises were likely much smaller, since the increase included two rounds of federal stimulus payments.
Average household income came out much higher at $97,973 in 2020, suggesting a wide gap between the upper-income class and the bulk of medium and low-income Americans. Also indicative of worsening inequality was the raised threshold of the top 1 percent. To be part of the top 1 percent in 2019, a household needed to earn $475,116. That number rose nearly 12 percent to $531,020 in 2020.
According to Labor Department data compiled by Inequality.org, the average private-sector wage in real terms declined by almost 3 percent from March 2020 to January 2021. Over 76 million people lost work and nearly 100,000 businesses permanently closed during the same period and. About 18 million people were still collecting unemployment on January 30, 2021.