While most Iowans spent the first three months of the coronavirus crisis struggling to stay physically healthy and financially afloat, the state’s richest resident had a happier occupation: watching his fortune grow.
Seed mogul Harry Stine, Iowa’s lone billionaire, saw his net worth climb over 40 percent during this spring’s pandemic, to a staggering $5.4 billion.
That’s the finding of a recent report released by Iowa Citizen Action Network (ICAN) in partnership with Americans for Tax Fairness and Health Care for America Now. The groups analyzed billionaire data from Forbes magazine covering the period between March 18, the rough start of COVID-19 economic restrictions, and June 17.
During that same stretch, over 300,000 Iowa residents lost their jobs, nearly 29,000 caught the virus and over 700 died from it. The rich rewards reaped by Stine during this medical and economic emergency — compared to the worry and hardship endured by the state’s working families — highlights the need for greater investment in health care and other public services paid for by making the wealthy and corporations pay their fair share of taxes.
Corporations have as usual been putting profits over people even in the midst of a crisis. Someone close to me is the manager of a big corporate retail outlet here in Iowa. The local store has had workers and customers self-identify as exposed and having to self-quarantine. When corporate headquarters was notified the first response was: “Make a new hire,” not “How’s your employee doing?” Or “What can we do to help?” The company doesn’t require customers to wear masks and has given no guidance for remaining open.
The husband of one of the ICAN team members works at the Whirlpool refrigerator plant in Amana. It repeatedly shut and then prematurely reopened through the spring as workers continued to fall ill. Distancing and sanitation practices were inadequate and frightening for this employee who is at high-risk for infection and had to fight just to get unpaid leave.
The divergent experiences of the richest among us and the rest of us this spring was not unique to Iowa. The collective net worth of America’s 600 or so billionaires ballooned by nearly $600 billion, even as 45 million Americans filed for unemployment, more than 2 million tested positive for coronavirus and almost 120,000 succumbed to the illness.
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The only way to equalize the impact of our dual crises on Iowa citizens is through federal action. We need a robust new coronavirus aid package, such as the HEROES Act already passed by the House of Representatives. It includes substantial aid for state and municipal services that are needed more than ever but threatened by collapsing local tax revenue.
We also need to end special tax breaks that help the wealthy and corporations keep getting richer even in times of national emergency, and of course avoid opening any new loopholes. Yet our senior U.S. senator, Chuck Grassley, slipped a provision into the coronavirus relief package enacted in March that will this year give 43,000 millionaires an average tax break of $1.6 million. Compare that with the $1,200 checks that are supposed to sustain working Americans.
The HEROES Act would revoke the Grassley giveaway — raising almost $250 billion in the process for better purposes — and there’s separate legislation in the Senate that would do the same. No one should expect Grassley to forswear his sly handiwork, which he’s fiercely defended. But Iowa’s junior senator, Joni Ernst, who’s asking Iowa voters for a second term this fall, has also failed to endorse the repeal of this egregious handout to the rich.
Other benefits regular Iowans would get from the HEROES Act include over $10 billion for health care, education and other public services; as well as an extension of expanded unemployment benefits and another round of (improved) individual payments.
Iowa and our nation can only recover from our current crises and build a better future if we all go through the process together. Right now, what Harry Stine and other billionaires are experiencing bears no relation to the typical Iowan’s struggles. A fair-share tax system — beginning with repeal of the Grassley giveaway — would forge a stronger union by narrowing the gap between the rich and the rest of us.
Sue Dinsdale is the executive director of Iowa Citizen Action Network and Tax March Iowa.