During a year in which Australia fell into a recession for the first time in almost three decades, unemployment reached a 22-year high and thousands struggled to afford basic necessities, the combined net worth of Australia’s billionaires rose by more than 50%.
New data by the Bloomberg Billionaires Index shows the wealth of Australian billionaires increased by 56% between Jan. 10, 2020, and Jan. 10, 2021. While their combined net worth dipped in March when leaders first introduced strict COVID-19 restrictions, figures quickly recovered before skyrocketing throughout the year.
Labor frontbencher Andrew Leigh said the increase is “remarkable.”
"[The figures] remind us of the importance of tackling inequality, which is significantly higher in Australia than it was a generation ago,” Leigh told the Guardian Australia. “The fact is for those who are struggling this has been a terrible year, and 2021 will be a rough year indeed. Recessions often worsen inequality, but this one seems to have turbocharged the gap.”
Leigh added: “While affluent Australians can ride the share market rollercoaster, more than 1 million people with insufficient assets have pulled money out of superannuation. High-paid workers can also more easily work from home than low-paid workers.”
Australia’s figures trump that of other wealthy nations.
Billionaires in the US and UK saw their wealth increase by around 25% across the same period. A separate report from financial organisations UBS and PwC Switzerland, meanwhile, showed that globally, billionaires grew their wealth by 27.5% between April and July last year.
Across 2020, while the world’s billionaires added trillions to their bank accounts, extreme poverty rates increased for the first time in over two decades. The World Bank reports that COVID-19 will likely push a further 88 to 115 million people under the international poverty line of less than $1.90 a day, bringing the total number of extreme poor to upwards of 729 million.
Global Citizen’s Give While You Live campaign calls on the world’s 2,000 billionaires to pledge at least 5% of their wealth each year to help lift millions out of poverty and reach the United Nations’ Global Goals, including goal 2 for zero hunger and goal 3 for good health and well-being for all.
In Australia, economists fear newly introduced cuts to the emergency pandemic allowances, JobKepper and JobSeeker — which saved over 2 million Australians from poverty in 2020 — could see hundreds of thousands struggling to afford rent, food and other basic necessities.
"Our estimates suggest that by themselves these changes will push an extra 740,000 Australians into poverty, lifting the total number in poverty from 1.1 million to 1.84 million,” economists Ben Phillips, Mathew Gray and Nicholas Biddle wrote for the Conversation.