Caroline Kennedy: The unlikely campaigner

Bringing up two sons with little or no money helped fuel a new direction in tackling child poverty

Caroline Kennedy
Caroline Kennedy

I never thought I’d be able to make a difference. But even when the structures are so big and we're so small, I'm here to tell you we can.

One in three children in Scotland is trapped in poverty. This is just a statistic to some, but my family is that one in three. I had two options when raising my sons: heat or eat. It is more than a slogan. It’s a situation parents really face.

I’m Caroline. I live in the east end of Glasgow and I’ve raised my two sons – now 17 and 19 – on my own since they were small. We’ve lived with poverty for most of their lives, but I’ve tried to give them a good life.

I became an expert in budgeting. I applied for loans, but avoided cash advances that made you pay back more than double what was borrowed. It’s not easy being accepted for credit when you don’t have a wage coming in. This is why reducing child poverty is my passion.

In 2008 I started a course in social care. It was important that I had an identity other than "single mum". I wanted to get back to work and find a way out of poverty.

It started well, but after five months of  studying I had my first-ever panic attack on the bus on the way to college. After more attacks I developed agoraphobia and was isolated for several years.

Before the agoraphobia I was coordinator of my local parish church, St Michaels. After being isolated for a year or so from my community, I began going to the church again: they knew the difficulties I was experiencing and supported me.

Twelve months later I became involved with the Poverty Truth Commission. I had no idea at first what this organisation was about, but it has changed my life. It brings those living in poverty together with decision-makers. More have been set up across Scotland and England. People like me are vital to them: we are the experts on the impact of poverty because we live with it every day.

I am now also a member of the Poverty and Inequality Commission, created by the Scottish government in 2017. We give independent advice on poverty and inequality. My area of expertise happens to be poverty and awareness of the issues that affect people on the ground. I take people’s stories back to the PIC to make sure their voices are heard, whether parents with special needs children or asylum seekers. It’s vital that we get this bigger picture on poverty and don’t dismiss their stories as exceptions or one-offs.

I never imagined I’d be part of organisations creating change for other families caught in poverty. I didn’t know such organisations existed: I thought decisions were made and that was the end of it.

I helped to spearhead a campaign after discovering that the school clothing grant awarded to families on low incomes in Scotland were at different levels in each authority, ranging from £20 to £110 – well below the cost of school clothing in each area. Our campaign lasted three years until early this year when the Scottish government announced a minimum level of £100 across Scotland, with a review every two years.

I never thought I would be a campaigner, but I've now expanded my work to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the FrameWorks Institute.

Being part of the Poverty Truth Commission helped me grow in confidence, and helped others realise they have voices that I can amplify. I have overcome agoraphobia and now I am an adviser to the Scottish government on child poverty. I want people to believe in themselves and be able to access support when they need it most. If I can do it, anyone can. I am valued and treated as an equal, and I am happy and privileged to be part of it.

We need to listen more to those people who have experience of whatever issue we want to address. It's about everyone working together to create change and a decent society that treats everyone with dignity and respect. We can all benefit from a working partnership that has people at the heart of decisions.

Caroline Kennedy is a child poverty campaigner and was one of the speakers at this year's storytelling event, Being the Story 2018. You can see her talk at Being the Story's YouTube channel

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