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Robert Putnam is not a happy man. He's been reading the tea leaves and he doesn't like what they are telling him. "We're about to go over a cliff when it comes to social mobility," he says. "Social mobility and opportunity [for kids who grow up in the bottom third of society] are going to plummet."

Mr. Putnam is a leading political scientist who is best known for Bowling Alone, a book that explores the decline of social capital in American life. Two weeks ago, he discussed his latest findings at the Aspen Ideas Institute, a thinkfest for wonks from all walks of life. His remarks are drawing wide attention because they raise new questions about one of the biggest issues of our time: inequality.

In fact, he argues, poverty and inequality are not the real issues. The real issue is equality of opportunity – the ability of people in the lower class to move up the ladder. Equality of opportunity is what we care about the most. We want to believe that we live in a meritocratic society where everyone has an equal chance to succeed. But that is less and less the case. And the remedies are not at all obvious.

Today, one of the most important indicators of a child's prospects in life is what Mr. Putnam calls Goodnight Moon time. As in: How much time do you spend reading Goodnight Moon to your kids?

If you're an upper-middle-class parent, the answer is probably: Quite a lot. You also spend quite a lot of time talking with them, taking them to hockey and ballet, sending them to Kumon if they're weak in math. If you're a lower-class parent, as Mr. Putnam found, you spend much less time doing any of these things. You are also more likely to be a single parent, which means the total parental time available to invest in your offspring is significantly diminished.

It's not that lower-class parents are paying less attention to their kids than they used to. The gap arises because educated parents are investing far more time, effort and money in their kids than ever before. This gap shows up in test scores, where the kids at the top are pulling farther and farther away from the kids at the bottom.

Mr. Putnam (who describes himself as a liberal Democrat) argues that social activists should stop focusing on poverty and race. Racial disparities are narrowing, but class disparities are widening dramatically. The prosperous and the poor, regardless of race, are increasingly segregated from each other. They live in different places and have increasingly divergent family structures and values. "Over the last two decades or so, white kids coming from less educated, less well-off backgrounds are more and more going through life with only one parent at home," he says. These kids are disaffected and disconnected from a very early age. "There's a growing class gap among American youth among all the predictors of success in life." This gap is way worse than it was in the 1960s, when large minorities of people were still excluded from mainstream life.

The situation in Canada is not as dire. Social mobility is far greater here. Poorer kids in Canada have better schools, and universities are more affordable. But look at a map of the have and have-not neighbourhoods of Toronto, and it's hard to feel complacent. We, too, appear to be stratifying along class lines far more than we would like.

The paradox of modern life (one that Mr. Putnam doesn't deal with) is that meritocracy and equality are increasingly at odds. As society has become more open, inclusive and meritocratic, it has also become more elitist. It's not that life's winners aren't deserving – most of them are accomplished and work hard. The trouble is that the gap between the winners and the losers is getting a lot wider.

The meritocracy operates superbly well in Canada. In the past couple of generations, we've done a fantastic job of identifying and rewarding talent. Children of poorly educated farmers and of penniless immigrants have grown up to be top surgeons and Supreme Court justices. Anyone who's qualified can get in to university. Our elites are more racially, religiously and gender diverse than ever before. Our record of overcoming exclusion and discrimination, although not perfect, is a magnificent accomplishment.

But our meritocratic system also produces dramatically unequal outcomes. These outcomes are becoming more entrenched. Talented, hard-working and successful people marry each other and have children who are more likely than not to be talented and successful too. Thus does the meritocracy perpetuate itself.

The questions raised by this clash between meritocracy and equality are uncomfortable ones. In a world where parental investment seems to make so much difference, what does equality of opportunity really mean?

These questions have no good answers. Conservatives tend to shrug and say that's just the way life goes. Progressives demand higher taxes on the rich and more social programs – even though they themselves aren't sure how much good these things will do. As Mr. Putnam said at Aspen, "I happen to think that hugs and time are more important than money." (He added that money is important too.)

Personally, I don't think we have a clue about how to fix the Goodnight Moon gap. What I do know is that it matters more than ever.

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