Corporate Spending During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Exorbitant spending by America’s wealthiest companies in the face of mass death and suffering reminds us of the urgent need to address America’s widening wealth gap.

By Miriam Li

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare some of the most ludicrous aspects of wealth inequality in the United States. While families across the country struggled to make ends meet during the pandemic, shareholders at American corporations were enjoying major windfalls. Indeed, many of America’s largest publicly traded corporations spent billions in stock dividends and millions in CEO compensation in 2020, even amidst company layoffs and heightened risks to worker health.

2020’s big spenders included Walmart, which shelled out $6 billion for shareholders through stock dividends. Despite Walmart’s willingness to spend big on shareholders, the company was less generous with its “essential workers,” reportedly paying cashiers wages of less than $12 an hour that same year. Boeing’s CEO also won big in 2020, receiving $21 million in annual compensation despite announcing 30,000 job cuts during the pandemic. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos saw his wealth increase by $75 billion in 2020, while Tesla CEO Elon musk’s wealth rose by 545% to more than $180 billion. In short, America’s wealthiest stockholders and c-suite officials largely coasted through the pandemic, with many enjoying skyrocketing fortunes in the safety of their homes.

In contrast, the most vulnerable groups in American society faced increased levels of debt, food insecurity, and housing insecurity during the global crisis. Many low-wage workers were forced to continue working in person despite the major health risks posed by the pandemic, and studies indicate that essential workers faced a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 and dying from the disease than others. The racial wealth gap widened, and job loss in industries such as leisure and hospitality, education and health, and retail left millions of American workers unable to pay rent.

While many of America’s largest corporations did not receive direct aid from the government through programs such as the Paycheck Protection Program, these companies benefited greatly from pre-pandemic tax cuts and the Federal Reserve’s backstop of the corporate bond market. If the gross wealth inequalities in American society are to improve, lawmakers must act to curtail the rampant corporate greed that endured even in the face of the deadliest health crisis in the last century. Legislation that places limits on worker to CEO pay ratios must be implemented to ensure that all levels of the corporate ladder benefit from the wealth generated by American companies, and an increase in the federal minimum wage must be passed to ensure that working Americans can earn a living wage. Limitations on stock buybacks and laws that encourage re-investment in workers should also be a priority for Congress, and Trump-era tax cuts that benefitted wealthy corporations and millionaires must be reversed.

In short, although we witnessed the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans due to COVID-19 and food insecurity that impacted millions, many lawmakers and corporate moguls appear ready to continue business as normal. Nothing but radical policy reform can dig us out of this mess, and lawmakers have an obligation to act now to fight the powerful systems that maintain shameful levels of inequality in the United States.