During its heyday as a racially mixed, economically vibrant manufacturing center through the 1960s, Benton Harbor grew into a home to more than 20,000 people. Today its population is closer to 10,000, about 90 percent of whom are black. The per capita income of its residents is roughly $10,000; about 60 percent of its population is on some form of public assistance.
I grew up in the neighboring town, St Joseph and witnessed the stark contrast in worlds. My dad used to help at a youth center and the bus I rode for part of my middle school years swung by the Wirlpool district on the way to pick up kids in a small outlying neighborhood of St Joseph. I played middleschool football against Benton Harbor once and got my asparagus kicked on the field by kids in my same grade but probably 3-4 years older and a good 50lbs heavier - at the time the joke was they had held people back because they wanted to stack the team...the reality was not a concept I personally recognized yet.
Personally I think Rachel Maddow is doing what most national political commentators do, she's talking in broad generalities about an issue she doesn't really understand. That doesn't mean I don't agree with much of her concern but I wouldn't go so far as to make the accusations she's made. My dad is a member of the Kiwanis club in St Joseph and Harris came to talk to them to explain what he was hoping to do. He earned a lot of trust with his frankness about the situation residents in both towns had watched for decades.
My biggest questions after reading the article:
It does leave me wondering if, as the article closes, it won't leave Benton Harbor divided within itself like Benton Harbor and St Joseph were (and still are) when I was growing up. It sounds like they have big plans for the school systems and big dreams of bringing in tourism, but the article didn't once mention basic things like a quality grocery store in the residential areas (the only major one I know of in Benton Harbor are way over by the Mall/Wallmart/Meijer etc and nowhere near the major residential areas like where the youth center was) which is one of the first key steps to fighting poverty.
This has such a huge potential for good but there is also a huge potential for gentrification like much of the population of Benton Harbor fears. Working in Southeast DC over the last decade I got to see that first hand, putting in the ballpark and making Southeast DC a business hub didn't improve the situations for any of the residents, it made the cost of living so great that homes started in the half million dollar range and existing residents who could barely afford the public housing were forced into neighboring counties. The crime came down in that specific area but it didn't turn a bad situation around - it merely relocated it.
Maybe they just chose not to cover it in the article (or maybe I missed it) but I would like to think that the city and state would cut equally sweet deals with the residents of the city to establish a larger percentage of property ownership (i.e. lack of property tax, free lots etc) and build a sense of community and ownership of the problem.