There is a massive so-called “marriage gap” in Canada, according to a new report, which found that the wealthiest Canadians are most likely married or living common law, while the poorest are more likely to be single.

In what it bills as the first-ever analysis of marriage and income done in this country, the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada found that marriage rates among the wealthiest Canadians, or the top 25 per cent of income earners, “remained remarkably stable” over the 30 years that were studied: 1976 to 2011.

In contrast, the number of married and common law couples among middle- and low-income earners declined.

In the last year of data included in the study, 2011, 86 per cent of the top quartile of income earners reported being married or in a common law relationship. Only 12 per cent in the bottom quartile said they were married or living common law.

About half of middle-class families include a married or common-law couple, the report found.

The study also found that the marriage gap widened after 1976 as marriage rates remained high among high-income earners, but declined among middle- and low-income earners in the 1980s and 1990s. Since then, marriage rates have increased among middle- and low-income earners, but only slightly.

Senior researcher Peter Jon Mitchell told an Ottawa news conference Tuesday that the “marriage gap” matters because research has found that marriage offers a variety of economic and social benefits.

“A diverse group of scholars have noted that married couples seem to build more wealth on average and seem to be better protected against poverty,” Mitchell said.

“Marriage helps secure friend and family networks in times of need such as job loss or the loss of a family member. And stable married families also serve as an avenue for social mobility for children.”

Mitchell said that data on same-sex marriage was included in the study from 2006 onward, and the findings would apply to those unions, as well.

What remains unclear, according to report, is whether marriage creates wealth or whether the wealthy are much more likely to get married.

“A better question might be whether the wealth of marriage is inaccessible to those who are lower income,” Mitchell said in a statement. “If so, what can we do about it? Asking how marriage is faring along income lines is an important step in the process of looking to eradicate poverty, long term.”

Mitchell told reporters that his organization is not trying to convince Canadians to marry for the economic benefits.

However, with the ongoing discussion of income inequality in Canada, he said, Canadians must acknowledge that the marriage gap exists and begin a conversation about why married couples enjoy certain benefits that singles do not.

“Marriage isn’t a silver bullet for social problems, and nor is family of origin a destiny,” Mitchell said. “But healthy marriages do promote economic and social goods for families and society.”

Mitchell added that while the government has a “modest role” to play in addressing the marriage gap, business groups and community organizations can play a larger role in supporting marriage.

Researchers in the United States note that tax credits for low-income earners are one way to encourage marriage in that group, which has “traditionally shunned marriage,” he said.

And in Australia, lawmakers have launched a pilot project in which $200 vouchers are given to residents for marriage education, financial counselling or parenting courses.

These and other policy ideas designed to support marriage are all being debated and studied, Mitchell said, and his organization is not advocating for any one in particular to be adopted.

“I’m not saying economics is the primary motivation for getting married. I’m sure that it isn’t, and I don’t think it actually should be,” Mitchell said. “I think that would actually be pretty cold. But we’re certainly raising that as one aspect to think about.”