Slashing benefits of single parents who don't look for work will increase child poverty and family hardship, a report has warned.
Gingerbread, the charity that represents lone parents, wants ministers to abandon the "big stick" of benefit sanctions proposed in the Welfare Reform Bill.
Interviewing 200 single parents it found most were keen to work but felt hampered by lack of support from Government and employers.
Gingerbread chief executive Fiona Weir said: "Single parents are branded bad mothers if they are not there for their children and derided as benefits scroungers if they stay home - they feel caught in a trap."
The Government says getting single parents to work is the best route out of poverty.
But Gingerbread claims welfare reforms will make it tougher for single parents to juggle work with raising a family.
There are 1.9 million single parents in the UK who care for about three million children. Until last year, those with children aged 16 or younger could claim Income Support and weren't forced to seek work.
They had to attend "Work Focused Interviews" at the Jobcentre twice a year to discuss returning to work.
Since then, the Government has introduced a major change, gradually moving single parents with children aged seven and over from Income Support on to Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA).
To claim JSA they must attend Jobcentre Plus every two weeks and show they are actively looking for work. Claimants who fail to meet these conditions or who turn down a job without "good cause" can have their benefits cut by up to 40%.
The Bill aims to make parents of children as young as three take part in "work-related activity".
Many single parents are already being squeezed by the recession.
Calls to Gingerbread's helpline suggest more lone parents are seeing maintenance payments slashed as ex-partners lose their jobs.
Gingerbread's research also found many parents were keen to work but said it often didn't pay. "Childcare, travel and school meal costs can wipe out the benefits of many lowpaid, part-time jobs and leave parents out of pocket," says Weir.
Gingerbread wants employers to be more flexible to help single parents juggle work and family responsibilities and says the state could lead by example by offering more flexitime, parttime work and job sharing.
It believes single parents should have childcare costs covered through working tax credits and get their youngsters school meals free.
The DWP stressed the Government was commited to ensuring work pays for lone parents. Work & Pensions Secretary Yvette Cooper has announced a trial that from next year will mean they can earn £50 a week without losing benefits. And the bill has been amended so victims of domestic violence will not have to look for work for three months.
"We need to help families out of poverty by helping parents work, and we will always do so in a way that also supports family life," said Cooper. Here we speak to three single mums facing the challenges...
For expert advice call Gingerbread's free helpline on 0800 018 5026.
The full-time mum
Mother-of-two Jaqueline Carroll says she feels "stuck in a rut" on benefits.
"I want to work," the 33-year-old from Liverpool says. "I think it's terrible that the Government is threatening to take money off single parents instead of help them.
"Some single parents advisers are good - but some ask why you don't apply for jobs starting from 8.30am. When you say you can't because you have to drop your child off at school, they go 'oh you're just being negative'."
Jacqueline was shocked when she went for a supermarket job. "The first thing they said was 'if any of you want cushy hours, forget it. The good hours are for people already here'."
The part-time worker
Wendi New, 40, had to give up her job teaching young offenders in prison when her marriage broke up 12 months ago.
She says staff at her local Jobcentre tried to push her to work at a supermarket, despite her qualifications. Now she has a job teaching children with behavioural problems closer to her home in Lowestoft, Suffolk. She works 18 hours a week and brings home about £900 a month.
"I'd have to work 50 hours a week in a supermarket to earn that. I couldn't do it and look after Hollie. Even now if Hollie's ill I have to take unpaid leave and then I'm worse off than I'd be on benefits."
The full-time worker
Charity worker Sarah Davidge from Bristol wants to work to provide a "positive role model" for her daughters Meg and Beth.
"You have two jobs - work and parenting. But you don't feel as if you do either to the best of your ability. I can't stay late at work and I don't feel able to devote as much time as I'd like going through homework with them."
Sarah admits she is luckier than many lone parents - earning about £25,000 for a 35-hour week, and her employer is flexible about hours.
"But a lot of companies aren't so flexible. The Government should encourage choice, not try to force people to take the first job going."