Advocates for women and the poor said Wednesday, Jan. 26, that the debate over welfare programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families must be based on facts, not on hearsay or anecdotes.

Gov. Paul R. LePage response statement said there should be a five-tier system and a five-year limit on programs such as TANF.

LePage’s spokesman, Dan Demeritt, said, “The governor believes we have to make the whole welfare program better fit the needs of individuals … People who are going back on the tax rolls [with jobs] are creating a saving.”

Maine Equal Justice Partners and the Maine Women’s Lobby released the results Wednesday of a comprehensive study they commissioned of 1,000 families receiving TANF to back up their call for a fact-based debate.

“For too long, the discussion about Maine’s safety net programs has been driven by anecdotes and stereotypes,” said Chris Hastedt of  Maine Equal Justice Partners. “While we believe that the program can be improved, we all need to start with a common understanding of what TANF is, and what it isn’t.”

Sarah Standiford, executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby, said, “We can only arrive at the appropriate solutions when they are based on facts — not fiction.”

Professors Sandra Butler of the University of Maine and Thomas McLaughlin of the University of New England conducted the spring 2010 study. McLaughlin said 6,000 surveys were sent out, 1,000 were returned, and some respondents were personally interviewed.

Among the study’s findings:

• Most TANF families are headed by women raising young children on their own. The median age of a child receiving TANF is just younger than 2 years old.

• The median length of time that families reported receiving TANF was 18 months.

• Some 97 percent of those who answered the survey had work experience, with an average of three jobs in the last five years.

• The average wage for working respondents was $8.36, 4.5 percent greater than the average salary found in a 2001 study of TANF families. By comparison, Maine’s average weekly wage for all workers increased by 20.3 percent in the same period.

• Twelve percent of all respondents who were due child support said they received it regularly.

• People with higher education levels reportedly receive TANF for a shorter period of time than those with less education.

• The three biggest reasons families indicated they apply for TANF include: The instability of the low-wage market; illness and disability; and family problems such as divorce, separation or domestic abuse.

Hastedt said the TANF program in Maine serves 14,000 families with 25,000 children. The program is funded by a $78 million federal grant, coupled by $38 million in state funding, some of which comes from child support. The state’s General Fund expense for TANF is about $28 million, with the remainder of state funding going to other programs, including education and transportation. Hastedt said federal funding for TANF has not increased since 1996.

Dean Crocker said TANF pays a family of three $485 a month, which he said is one-third of the federal poverty level. That maximum benefit has not been increased in a decade, according to Hastedt.

Several women receiving TANF benefits attended the news conference.

Pam Smith, from Southern Maine, said she has three sons ages 2, 12 and 14.

“I’ve been on and off TANF since I split up with my husband of 16 years in 2007,” said Smith. She lost both her husband’s income and her own income from a “good job” when they broke up. She said her ex-husband doesn’t regularly pay child support.

Smith said last year she had a job paying “decent” wages when her oldest son suffered life-threatening injuries in an accident and required round-the-clock care.

Smith said she intends to graduate in 2012 with an associate degree in criminal justice, which she expects will lead to a good job. “I did not choose TANF; I didn’t have any other option,” said Smith.

Erica Dupont of Augusta, said, “TANF has been a blessing. I graduate this year with a bachelor’s degree in mental health and I’m hoping to go into special education with adolescents.”

Dupont said she was diagnosed in 2002 with lupus couldn’t work for five years. She said she has been receiving TANF for about three years. “It was either get TANF and live in a shelter or live in a car,” Dupont said.

Dupont, the single mother of a 4-year-old girl, said the girl’s father moved out of state.

She said her lupus is under control and she is volunteering as a mentor at the Augusta Boys and Girls Club and at the Office of Civic Engagement at the University of Maine at Augusta.

Dupont said she receives $360 a month from TANF, which she said is enough to pay her electric bill, her phone bill and her rent.

Demeritt, the governor’s spokesman, said, “We appreciate the work that went into this study and the feedback they got. In a lot of ways, the governor agrees that our programs have to work for the individual.”

Gov. LePage’s statement said more than 2,600 TANF recipients have received benefits for more than five years and they are not classified as disabled, according to Social Security Standards.