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Everyone is worried about inequality. Everyone has a theory about why the rich are getting richer, while the gap between the haves and have-nots is becoming more entrenched. Everybody's got a favourite villain – globalization, technology, greedy bankers with too much power, the decline of unions, and on and on.

But the roots of inequality are also social. And there is one gap no one likes to talk about: the marriage gap.

Two things happened in the 1970s. Family income began to stagnate and family structures began to change radically. Divorce rates soared and marriage rates began to fall. More women began to have children outside marriage, and the percentage of female-headed families began to climb. In Canada, about 25 per cent of babies are now born out of wedlock. In the United States, it's 41 per cent. In Canada, just over 19 per cent of children live in single-parent families, mainly single mothers, and another 16.3 per cent live with parents who are common-law, according to Statistics Canada.

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The confluence of these trends is no coincidence, says Russ Roberts, a research fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution. The rise in female-headed households has helped create the great stagnation in family incomes. The rise of divorce, the decline of marriage and the growth in nonmarital motherhood have been much more dramatic among lower-middle-class and poor families than among the rich.

The marriage gap has created a vast amount of inequality. Lone-parent families in Canada are four times more likely to be poor than two-parent families are. The basic reason is obvious: Single mothers have far less in the way of financial resources, especially if they have less education and fewer skills.

Upper-middle-class two-parent families can invest far more time and resources in their children than lower-middle-class single mothers can, no matter how good their intentions. But the impact of family structure on children goes far beyond money. Kids from lone-parent families do worse on many measures. And the marriage gap is reducing upward mobility and sharpening the class divide. "Because the breakdown of the traditional family is overwhelmingly occurring among working-class Americans of all races, these trends threaten to make the U.S. a much more class-based society over time," writes Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution.

Canada is not the same as the United States, and distinctions are important. But the general trends apply to us as well. And the children most at risk in lower-income single-parent homes are boys. In a widely cited report published last spring, MIT economists David Autor and Melanie Wasserman drew a direct link between the rising tide of fatherlessness and the growing failure of boys in school and the labour market.

"Males born into low-income single-parent headed households – which, in the vast majority of cases are female-headed households – appear to fare particularly poorly on numerous social and educational outcomes," they wrote. It's not just that the girls are outperforming them. It's that the boys are doing worse.

Changes in the labour market are not the only reason these boys are in trouble – not even the biggest one. Boys without fathers tend to develop serious behaviour problems at an early age. They're more antisocial and aggressive, more disruptive, more likely to drop out and get in trouble with the law – and become less employable than ever. They are far less inclined to get married, but quite likely to have kids. Which means that the class divide is likely to be self-perpetuating. As the authors warn, "the poor economic prospects of less-educated males may create differentially large disadvantages for their sons, potentially reinforcing the development of the gender gap in the next generation."

It would be nice to think we could close the marriage gap with more income supports for single mothers, higher minimum wages and all-day kindergarten for their kids. Frankly, that seems like wishful thinking. Bribing people to get married probably wouldn't work either. This is what's known as a hard problem, and no one likes to talk about it for fear of sounding reactionary and moralistic. But if we're really interested in the roots of inequality, ignoring it is a big mistake.

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