Irwin Garfinkel

Mitchell I. Ginsberg Professor of Contemporary Urban Problems

Co-Director, Columbia Population Research Center

Co-Director, Center on Poverty and Social Policy 


Past Research: Professor Garfinkel conducts research on the costs and benefits of welfare state programs. Much of this work has focused on the economic insecurity of single mothers and their children and policies designed to increase their security. Garfinkel’s seminal work on child support policy has shed light on the nature, consequences, and promise of child support enforcement for ensuring economic security for children. He described the large discrepancy between the amount of child support owed versus that paid by nonresident fathers, and he found that very little of this payment gap is accounted for by fathers of children on welfare (many of whom have low and irregular incomes). Universal wage withholding increases the amount of child support paid, but assuring decent and regular support to children of poor fathers would require a government guaranteed minimum payment. Garfinkel found that the strength of child support enforcement varies dramatically across states and over time, and that strong child support enforcement leads to higher paternity establishment rates, deters nonmarital births, increases welfare exits, reduces re-entrances and welfare caseloads. In partnership with Sara McLanahan, Garfinkel developed the Fragile Families and Child Well-being Study (funded by NICHD and foundations), that has become an important national resource providing new data on the growing—but little understood—population of unmarried parents and their children.

Present Research: Much of Garfinkel’s current work uses data from the Fragile Families Study, of which the nine-year follow-up was recently funded by NICHD. He finds that previous estimates of unwed father’s ability to pay child support are 33% to 60% too high because they fail to take account of multiple partner fertility and that three years post birth, non-resident fathers in strong enforcement cities pay no more in total child support than fathers who live in weak enforcement cities; increases in formal child support payments are offset by decreases in informal child support. In addition, Garfinkel has extended his paper with Timothy Smeeding and Lee Rainwater into a book, Wealth and Welfare States: Is America a Laggard or Leader?, which is forthcoming from Oxford University Press .  Contrary to common perception, the paper finds that, once public education and publicly-subsidized, employer-provided health insurance are counted, the American welfare state is not smaller than most welfare states in other rich nations. At the same time, the U.S. differs starkly in the kinds of public spending, with much less spent on cash transfer programs and much more spent on health insurance, raising the question of whether the U.S. is getting its money’s worth from its extraordinarily high medical care expenditures.

Future Research: In the coming years, Garfinkel will continue doing research utilizing data from Fragile Families and other data sets to explore the robustness of findings described above and will extend his work on the evaluation of the efficiency and equity of alternative welfare state programs to help vulnerable populations.

Professor Garfinkel's Departmental Biography Page

Garfinkel.jpg Irwin Garfinkel
School of Social Work
1255 Amsterdam Avenue
Room 714, Mail Code: 4600
New York, New York 10027