This paper explores the impact of the 'welfare to work' policy on lone parents. Under the New Labour government, welfare has increasingly been about encouraging, or compelling, a move into the labour market, with an ever-expanding concept of those who are seen as falling into the 'can work' group. The absence of work is increasingly seen as a failure of individual effort, rather than a result of conditions within the labour market itself. The latest group deemed to be not yet fully engaged within the 'active welfare state' are lone parents. This paper examines the tensions between paid work and unpaid caring work that have arisen from a welfare state based on a male breadwinner model of society. In this context, it argues that New Labour’s idea that lone parents take a lot from the state, while giving little back, is void. Instead, policies could be introduced that recognise contributions outside the labour market, such as caring for children, as a legitimate fulfilment of responsibilities to society. The author also finds that forcing people into unsustainable and low-paid work may be harmful to lone parents and their families. The priority must be to move beyond a regime that seeks to compel individuals into jobs that may not lift them out of poverty and towards a focus on sustainable employment and the characteristics of jobs and the labour market.