Scene still from "Poor Us"

Top 5 investigative videos of the week: "Poverty is what makes the rich rich"

From New York's crack epidemic to Stockton's Great Depression, a look at the finest docs YouTube has to offer


Amanda Pike
June 2, 2013 5:00PM (UTC)

The I Files Some questions prompted by this week’s videos:

• Are your personal finances in better shape than your city’s?
• Why does the media always freak out over the word “crack?”
• Did Karl Marx make good tea?

For a first look at the best investigations, please take a moment to subscribe to The I Files, a totally free, one-stop news source. Our editorial team scours the Web for the best news and documentary stories you might have missed.

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Remember, The I Files is way more accurate than “The X Files,” but can still make you ponder the meaning of it all.

“Poor Us: An Animated History,” Ben Lewis for the “Why Poverty?” series

“It’s the way the world works. Essentially, poverty is what makes the rich, rich.”

That’s the view of a historian interviewed in this installment of the Peabody Award-winning “Why Poverty?” series that debuted on PBS last winter. This doc came to mind after a Pew Research Center report came out last week with the finding that nearly a quarter of all Americans struggled to afford food in the last year, despite the fact that the U.S. was the richest country included in the survey. In this regard, the U.S. is on a level closer to Indonesia than Great Britain or Canada.

“Poor Us: An Animated History of Poverty” begins with the premise that in order to end poverty, we need to understand its history. To do this, the film takes the viewer through a global history of poverty from Neolithic times to today – compressing 10,000 years of history into 58 minutes. Melding real-world interviews with graphic animations, the film turns a grim subject into a fanciful premise – a dream sequence in which you, as the viewer, are the main character, careening through different epochs in history – crossing the plains in prehistoric times, begging in medieval Paris, drinking tea with Karl Marx and watching the conquistadors conquer the Incas.

Over the course of the film, we learn that some definite progress has been made. While 90 percent of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty in 1800, that figure is now more like 15 to 20 percent. But the division between the haves and have-nots is also starker than ever. Currently, the poorest half of the world's population earns less than 3 percent of the global household income.

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So, how do we end poverty once and for all? The answer is, unsurprisingly, complicated and open-ended. But the film reminds us at the very least to keep asking the question.

“What we have is poverty located at the very center of the operation of the system, as the engine of the system,” one expert explains. “When that happens, we begin to perceive poverty as something natural, something inevitable, something that we will never be able to rid ourselves of.”

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“Who Took Down Stockton?” The Center for Investigative Reporting and The Young Turks

“Who Took Down Stockton?” investigates how Stockton, Calif., became the largest U.S. city in history to file for bankruptcy. Stockton is one of the 33 U.S. municipalities that have filed for bankruptcy in the last few years. Not since the Great Depression have so many cities been so broke.

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Presented as a whodunit, the documentary questions the local politicians and bankers whose policies eventually crippled the city and profiles some of the residents who now are paying the price for the city’s fiscal mismanagement. City workers who have lost their health care now face the possible loss of their pensions.

It turns out that Stockton officials made some bad decisions, like betting on the housing market just before the bubble burst. But the city was helped along the road to financial ruin by some shady bid-rigging schemes devised by unscrupulous bankers. As a result, Stockton earned far less interest on millions of dollars in assets than it should have, with the banks pocketing the extra money. Ironically, these same banks now are the ones demanding repayment of loans and pressuring the city to cut city workers’ retirement benefits.

“This is going to kill someone,” says one former city employee whose health benefits were taken away. “It’s not going to make it uncomfortable for them, it’s not going to cut off their Starbucks run, it’s not going to prevent them from going to Tahiti. It will kill someone.”

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“Crack Babies: A Tale from the Drug Wars,” The New York Times’ “Retro Report”

In the 1980s, the media sounded the alarm that an insidious new drug – crack cocaine – was taking over American cities. In some neighborhoods, true enough. But the most frightening claim was that the drug had a particularly devastating effect on the babies born to drug users, causing an array of debilitating birth defects.

There was instant panic about the crippling effect this new epidemic would have on schools and the health care system. Pregnant addicts were vilified as child abusers and killers. Pundits lamented a new underclass of doomed children who would be unable to care for themselves and would cost the government as much as $5 billion a year.

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“These children were the most expensive babies ever born in America,” one congressman warned at the time. They “are going to overwhelm every social service of every system that they come in contact with throughout the rest of their lives.”

The problem was that the underlying premise of the “crack baby” phenomenon was poorly researched and overblown, according to this reassessment in a New York Times series, “Retro Reports,” that revisits old news stories. This installment takes a more nuanced and sober look at the media hype over crack babies.

The story shows how a single report – in this case, a small study of 23 babies by one doctor – quickly exploded into a media firestorm and fueled a mounting hysteria in the war on drugs, especially when accompanied by film of tiny trembling babies. “Retro Reports” details how contradictory stories that didn’t fit this popular narrative were dismissed.

“I think if you say something three times out loud, people take it as fact,” one dissenting doctor says. “And also, I think there are certain ideas that people want to believe. That really fit in with cultural stereotypes. And it’s hard to get rid of those.”

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“Witness: The Last Battle,” Al-Jazeera English

“The Last Battle” follows a group of elderly Kenyans as they fight for justice and acknowledgement of the torture they suffered at the hands of the British colonial government in the 1950s. The abuses occurred during Great Britain’s response to the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya and seem to have been deliberately ignored for the past 60 years.

The horrific stories of what Kenyans suffered at the hands of British soldiers – sexual assault, mutilation and torture – are almost too much to bear. I’m still haunted by one woman’s story of being taken away from her three children, held in jail and violated with a bottle until she miscarried. She returned home to find her husband castrated and their three children missing. They still have not been found. She stoically relates everything that was taken from her, summing up her life with her husband today: “We live like two women.”

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A British serviceman who witnessed the atrocities firsthand also argues for official recognition of these crimes and recompense for the victims.

“I feel almost destroyed by the fact that you can keep on and on and on without creating a closure,” he says. “It’s time for closure. It really is time for closure.”

“Captive Radio,” Lauren Rosenfeld

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Last weekend, the Colombian government and FARC rebels announced a major breakthrough in peace negotiations to end a civil conflict that has lasted almost 50 years. There are still many specific issues to be resolved, and making agreements with a rebel group that has terrorized the civilian population for decades remains controversial. Nonetheless, this is the closest the two sides have come to a peace deal.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, had become notorious for its use of kidnapping and ransom demands to fund its fight against the government. More than 20,000 people have been kidnapped during the five decades of civil conflict.

This excerpt from Lauren Rosenfeld’s documentary, “Captive Radio,” highlights a radio station where families of hostages can send messages and communicate with loved ones being held in the jungle. The host of the show got the idea after he was kidnapped by FARC guerrillas, snatched from the radio station where he was working.

Now back safely and continuing to get the word out to the last hostages who are still unaccounted for, he has this message for the missing: “Remember, your only obligation in captivity is to stay alive.”


Amanda Pike

Amanda Pike is the producer for The I Files, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. The I Files selects and showcases the best investigative videos from around the Web and across the world. Major contributors include CIR, The New York Times, BBC, ABC, Al-Jazeera, Vice TV and the Investigative News Network. You can follow Amanda on Twitter: @AmandaHPike.

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