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Here's a tale of two young women. I've made them up, but I've known versions of them both.

The first is Stephanie, age 28. Her future is bright. Her mom's a teacher and her father is a small-time lawyer. They're not rich but they're comfortable, and they've always been devoted parents. They must have read Goodnight Moon to her 5,000 times. They supervised her homework, and when she showed athletic promise, they spent tens of thousands of dollars so that she could compete on the teenage ski circuit. University was a given. Now, she's a lawyer too. She's moved in with her boyfriend, an engineer. Her parents adore him. At Christmas, he surprised her with a ring (she was expecting it) and next spring, they're getting married. They're saving up to buy a condo, and they both want kids when they can afford it – they want to give their children the same advantages they had.

Tammi is also 28. Her future is less bright. Her mom and dad never stayed in school past high school, and they drank. They split up when she was young. Her dad moved away, married someone else and had more kids. She hasn't seen him much since then. Mom had a few boyfriends who came and went; one made moves on Tammi. Although she graduated from high school, academics were not her thing. She and her mom fought a lot, so she moved in with a guy she knew. He was no prize. He smoked a lot of weed and couldn't hold a job. Marriage wasn't in the cards. But when she accidentally got pregnant at 22, they decided to keep the baby. She really wanted to be a mom. Four years ago they split, and now he's living with another woman. She had another child with someone else and lives in public housing now. She wants to go to community college and become a social worker, but child care is a problem and she hasn't gotten around to applying yet.

Money isn't all that separates these two women. While growing up, Stephanie had far more social capital – the web of networks and support that children need to flourish. This difference will be passed along to her children. They will get French immersion, ski lessons and huge amounts of parental and grandparental attention. Tammi's children will probably have chaotic and unstable lives, much like her own.

The opportunity gap is the subject of Robert Putnam's widely discussed new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. He argues that we should stop fixating on the 1 per cent and focus on the inequality that really matters: the huge differences in social capital between the top and bottom thirds. In the United States, where economic disruption and high incarceration rates have inflicted far more damage on working-class men, the gap is far greater than it is in Canada. But the questions raised by Our Kids matter to us, too. They raise the prospect of a world where inequality is baked into the cake.

In Canada today, just over 19 per cent of children live with single parents, and another 16.3 live with parents who are common-law, according to Statistics Canada. Back in 1981, most of Canada's young single mothers were separated or divorced. By 2001, nearly two-thirds of them had never been married. Single motherhood is increasingly common among less-educated women, but scarce among the more educated. In the United States, nearly 70 per cent of children born to high-school graduates grow up in single-parent households. Just 10 per cent of the children of university graduates do.

Single mothers can be good parents, too. But mountains of evidence show that the breakdown of traditional families among less-educated people has been terrible for children and society.

You can argue endlessly (and people do) about the connections among economic upheaval, poverty and family disruption. But one thing is clear: In 1960s North America, social mores began to change dramatically. People were no longer shunned or ostracized for failing to conform to society's norms. Expressiveness began to replace duty. Shotgun weddings became obsolete and divorce rates soared. Out-of-wedlock births shot up. The behaviour of the more- and less-educated classes began to diverge sharply, and it was kids further down the ladder who suffered most.

Today, these classes live in two different worlds, one in which neo-traditional marriage is flourishing and one in which two-parent families are dying off. Ironically, the people who have constructed traditional families for themselves are often loath to condemn the behaviour of others, for fear of seeming unenlightened, intolerant or judgmental.

What's to be done? No one knows, which is no doubt the reason why politicians prefer to discuss the travails of the middle class instead. Universal daycare and prekindergarten? There's no evidence they reduce the opportunity gap for poor kids. Urging moms like Tammi to read and talk more to their children? Idealists are hopeful, but the idea smacks of wishful thinking. More social transfers to single mothers? In Canada, we actually do a pretty good job of this now. What about mentorship programs and better interventions for troubled kids? Yes, by all means. But the fact is that successful child-rearing is a two-parent job.

Well, then, let's back marriage. But how, pray tell, are we supposed to do that? David Brooks of The New York Times speaks wistfully of a "moral revival" that might occur through "organic communal effort, with voices from everywhere saying gently: This we praise. This we don't." But who is "we"? And who's listening?

There must be other ideas out there. If only I had a clue what they might be.