Because I am a woman of a certain age, I took for granted that men were scarce. Those line-dance parties, where the women outnumbered men three to two? The church services where a short line of male deacons stood before pews filled with females?
It was a function of longevity, I thought. Women outlive men.The census says so.
It took a New York Times article to show me that I'd been seeing things all wrong: A large swath of African-American men in their prime have simply disappeared from their homes, daily lives and from work.
"Remarkably, black women who are 25 to 54 and not in jail outnumber black men in that category by 1.5 million," the Times reported. "For every 100 black women in this age group living outside of jail, there are only 83 black men. Among whites, the equivalent number is 99, nearly parity."
When the Times reporters dug deeper, the data was even more disturbing. On its list of 10 cities with black populations more than 10,000 where the gap between African-American males and females was widest, Shaker Heights was second. Euclid and Garfield Heights ranked seventh and 10th respectively.
The Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development at the Mandel School at Case Western Reserve University found a similar pattern when it crunched 2010 census data for all of Cuyahoga County.
Cleveland has 109 white males, age 18-64, per 100 white women. In the suburbs, the ratio is 97 white men per 100 women. But the city has 84 African-American males per 100 African-American females. In the suburbs, it's 75 black men per 100 women.
The center also looked at the five suburbs that account for more than half the county's African-American population. In Cleveland Heights, there are 73 African-American males per 100 females. In Warrensville Heights, like Shaker and Euclid, there are 68 African-American men per 100 females.
My real-life observation was flawed. I wasn't witnessing a dearth of men. I was looking at a dearth of African-American men.
I peered closely at the events I was attending. Little boys and girls sat in the pews, but I saw almost no teenagers or young adults — males roughly 25 to 40. As my eyes opened, so did my ears. I listened to conversations more carefully. A local musician friend changed his band's set list after a recent performance. He ditched some ballads for more upbeat songs, because women dominated the audience, and they didn't have partners for the slower numbers.
When I matched my observations to the numbers, I understood as African-American men reach their peak, they disappear. Sometimes this is due to upward mobility. The men follow work. They join the military.
I'd met young men who'd done just that. Two moved west to Arizona and Texas, another enlisted in the Air Force, while a fourth joined the Marines. When I asked why, they told me point blank: The region held no promise for them.
But other causes, like incarceration, lead to a downward spiral that hobbles a region bent on economic reinvention.
Why? Missing men mean fewer two-adult families, and fewer two-adult families mean more children and residents in economic distress. In 2013, for example, the National Women's Law Center found that 39.6 percent of families headed by women were living in poverty. The figured dropped to 7.6 percent for married couples with offspring.
"Families are the economic building block for society," says Robert Fischer, co-director of the Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development at CWRU. "Two-adult families — even with low earnings — are economically more sound."
That reality rests on another gender gap: the salary differential between men and women. Women make 78 cents to a man's dollar. But that comparison uses white males' salaries as the standard. African-American men working full time earn more than African-American women by $3,500 annually. That's a small but mighty difference for families trying to stave off poverty.
What created these circumstances? Experts blame the War on Drugs and stiffer sentences for crack versus for powder cocaine. That policy pummeled African-American communities, where crack was the drug of choice.
"[The War on Drugs] created a condition that took men during their most productive years out of the community and into prison, in essence making them unmarriageable prospects for women," says Ronnie Dunn, an associate professor of urban studies at Cleveland State University.
The war was hard-fought in Cleveland, where possession of a crack pipe was a felony for more than 20 years. Dunn estimated the policy accounted for 1,200 to 1,500 cases annually, until it was rescinded in 2009.
"These people went to state prison, they would stay six months to a year, and then they're released back to the county," Dunn says. "We were perpetuating the creation of a felony class that is a significant portion of our population."
These men, for all practical purposes became unemployable.
In Ohio, collateral sanctions keep ex-offenders from obtaining licenses that could land a job. Although a 3-year-old law allows some ex-offenders to seal some convictions, they are still barred from a host of occupations in expanding fields such as health care.
They must also fight employers' reluctance to consider them for jobs. Researchers such as Devah Pager of Princeton University have found employers will interview a white male with a criminal conviction before calling an African-American man without a rap sheet. African-American ex-felons have little chance of finding work.
"Businesses and companies locate in cities where they have an employable source of labor," Dunn says. "If a significant portion of the population is unemployable, businesses won't locate there."
The region has to develop policies and bolster programs that help "missing" men find a vital place in their communities. Efforts could include stepping up calls to "ban the box" by removing questions about a criminal history from employment applications and expanding the reach of workforce readiness organizations such as Towards Employment.
But the problem can't be overlooked. The missing African-American men haven't disappeared. They're being ignored. From Shaker to Euclid and Cleveland to Warrensville, Northeast Ohio must open its eyes to the fact that it can't prosper until it ensures those men have a way to find meaningful work and gainful employment.