Public policy professor examines how 'tools of democracy' can address inequality

January 30, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Economic inequality and democracy have been at odds since the days of Plato and Aristotle. Lawmakers continue to grapple with how to allow people the freedom to make money while creating the level political playing field necessary for a healthy democracy.

Political polarization at the federal level makes it unlikely that solutions will come from Washington, but individual states are taking action to address economic inequality, according to Chris Witko, associate director of Penn State’s School of Public Policy. Witko discusses some of these policies on this week’s episode of the Democracy Works podcast, produced by the McCourtney Institute for Democracy and WPSU Penn State.

Witko is the author of “The New Economic Populism: How States Respond to Economic Inequality.” At a time when the wealthiest 1 percent of the population holds 40 percent of the world’s wealth, Witko’s research shows that policies aimed at addressing economic inequality have broad public support.

“Policies like minimum wage increases and tax increases on millionaires and billionaires are really popular with the public,” Witko said. “These are policies that a majority of the people want and we're not really getting them in Washington. But some of the states are actually doing this.”

Many of these measures at the state level were passed through ballot initiatives voted on directly by citizens. Witko described these actions as using the “tools of democracy” to address economic inequality. 

“We've seen even conservative states like Missouri and South Dakota have their minimum wages go up via the initiative process,” Witko said. “When these things come up for a vote, they almost invariably pass.”

Witko said complete economic equality would not be a desirable outcome in a capitalist society. Rather, the goal should be to minimize inequality.

“I don't think anybody wants pure economic equality. But what we also don't want is extreme inequality, which is corrosive to democracy and to society,” he said. “I don't think very many Americans would support everybody earning the same income or pure equality. Avoiding extremes of inequality is the goal.”

For more information on the School of Public Policy, visit Listen to the Democracy Works podcast at or subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts.

  • Christopher Witko

    Christopher Witko, Penn State professor of public policy and political science

    IMAGE: photo provided
Last Updated January 30, 2019