THE WIND-UP

Health indesparities continue to wreak havoc in Benton Harbor

Dylan Marzke, Assistant Online Editor

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Running 206 miles through Southwest Michigan and Northern Indiana, the relatively narrow St. Joseph River is the only geographic separation between sister cities Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, Michigan. That said, the cultural separations between the two cities could be compared more closely to the geographic separation between Los Angeles, California and Tokyo, Japan.

St. Joseph has a population of 8,365 of which 90.31% are white and only 6.6% live below the poverty line. Benton Harbor, on the contrary, has a population of 10,038 of which 89.2% are African American with 42.6% living under the poverty line according to the 2010 national census. In fact, Benton Harbor’s per capita income was $8,965, the lowest in Michigan according to the same 2010 census. Unfortuantely, the indesparities don’t stop when it comes to the health and healthcare between the two populations. In fact, Benton Harbor is considered a high-risk area of Berrien County according to a Commmunity Health Needs Assessment (CHNA) conducted in 2016 by Lakeland Health and the Berrien County Health Department. The CHNA was conducted by using a system based on the mortality rate of a certain area using 48 census tracts divided into quartiles with 12 that are doing well with respect to mortality rates, 12 that are so-so, 12 that are not good, and 12 that are at the bottom. Benton Harbor landed in the bottom 12 census tracts.

“People die at much higher rates in Benton Harbor than in St. Joseph. If you have access to the CHNA you can see that St. Joe’s census tracts show that St. Joe’s people just don’t die at the same rate as people in Benton Harbor,” Dr. Lynn Todman, Executive Director for Population Health at Lakeland, said.

That said, although there isn’t a hospital or adequet urgent care facilities in the city of Benton Harbor, it’s typically not the access to healthcare itself that results in an area having poor health.

“We know that access to healthcare and doctors and hospitals are a really good thing. But health really starts where we live, where we work, where we play, and where we learn. Our communities and what they can provide to us are actually what makes us healthy, “ Gillian Conrad, Communications Manager for the Berrien County Health Department, said.

Because of Benton Harbor’s low per capita income and large population living in poverty, residents are oftentimes unable to afford healthy foods and are left with little choice than to get their nutrition from corner stores which typically sell produce that is not as fresh and have less healthy options. Also, due to the City of Benton Harbor’s struggling finanicial status, the city’s infastructure provides a lack of support for physical activity and exercise such as a lack of sidewalks along busy roads for walking and running.

“A lot of the social factors that shape health are present in Benton Harbor. When I say social factors that shape health, I’m talking about quality housing, quality education, sufficient jobs, parks and places for recreational activities, etc. We know that clinical care like what Lakeland provides is only responsible for about 20% of our health,” Dr. Todman, Executive Director for Population Health at Lakeland, said. “Most of our health is determined by all these other things… The big reason why there is a greater need in Benton Harbor is because many of the determinants of health—all the facts that go into health—are not present in that community the way they are in St. Joe. The reason why they aren’t present in that community is historical issues, issues of class, issues of race, and they all play a role and it gets very complex after that.”

Another large factor effecting the community of Benton Harbor’s health status is the availibility of quality housing. With little to no disposable income in a good number of families presciding in Benton Harbor, many are forced to live in housing which isn’t necessarily up to regulation. For example, a lot of the older homes in Benton Harbor still contain lead-based paint which can often flake and peel and be consumed leading to illness in the inhabitants of the house or apartment.

“In 1978, they passed a federal law saying lead can’t be in paint anymore because they realized lead causes poisoning in children and in pregnant women it can harm pregnancies. The side effects can range from mental delays, learning disabilities, ADHD, delayed/slowed growth, and in some cases mental retardation,” Conrad said. “In a lot of older homes, like in Benton Harbor, that lead-based paint over time, especially if it’s not kept up with, can start to chip, peel, or degrade and that paint disintegrates into dust which can leach into the soil, the home, and the air that the kids are breathing which can get into their blood system.”  

Overall, the biggest factor needed to change in order for the health of the community of Benton Harbor to improve is the environment in which is inhabitants are living in. With greater access to food, recreational facilities, income, and many other components which contribute to community health, the area could see sizeable improvement from where they stand currently in terms of health.

“In order for us to actually make a large impact on the entire community, the environment in which people live and work and play has to change… One of the things I’d like to convey is that we have to get beyond the point of blaming the people, the victims, and the people who experience the bad health because oftentimes they’re working and trying to navigate a system that isn’t set up to support good health,”  Dr. Todman said.

All taken into consideration, residents of St. Joseph and other surrounding communities need to recognize that this problem isn’t isolated to just Benton Harbor. The problems revolving around community health are prominent throughout all of Berrien County, the state of Michigan, and the entire United States as a whole.

“Berrien County is one of the least healthy counties in the whole state of Michigan. It ranks 67th out of 83… And Michigan is in the bottom third in terms of health outcomes in the United States. I think that what people lose perspective on is that this whole county has a problem. Now, Benton Harbor’s problem is more urgent, but St. Joe has a problem too,” Dr. Todman said.

Although geographic separation between St. Joseph and Benton Harbor slim and social separation immense, the need for improved health is a common theme which has persisted in the area for generations. With a system set up with little support to make a change in the Benton Harbor community, the problem appears as though it will continue to persist until the social factors blocking citizens from maintaining good health are removed and the area can begin the uphill climb to achieve good overall community health.

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Health indesparities continue to wreak havoc in Benton Harbor