AUGUSTA —  Upcoming legislative debates over proposed restrictions and reforms in Maine’s welfare programs should be based on facts, not anecdotes suggesting widespread cheating and long-term reliance on assistance, advocates said today.

Researchers, advocates and recipients of assistance programs released a report based on questionnaires completed in 2010 by more than 1,000 families receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and follow-up focus groups, which they called the most complete study of its kind since 1995.

The study was conducted as welfare reform became an issue during the gubernatorial campaign. With the new legislative session, a number of bills addressing welfare have been introduced, such as proposals to impose time limits on eligibility, tougher residency requirements and drug testing for recipients.

Gov. Paul LePage has not yet finalized his welfare reform package, but its central themes will be creating a tiered system that weans residents off welfare, creates a work requirement and imposes a five-year limit on benefits.

Advocates of assistance programs support some welfare proposals, such as those promoting greater access to job training and education, said Chris Hastedt of Maine Equal Justice, which advocates for low-income people. Hastedt noted that TANF spending represents less than 1 percent of the state general fund budget.

Hastedt and other advocates said that as debate develops in the weeks and months ahead, they hope proposed changes in the program will be based on facts. They said changes in the laws will affect about 14,800 Maine families – including 25,000 children – receiving assistance.

“Unfortunately, much of the debate has been driven by anecdotes and stereotypes, not credible information,” said Sarah Standiford, executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby.

Their study shows that the median time people are on TANF is 1½ years. It also shows the biggest reasons families apply for assistance are job instability, illness, disabilities and family problems including domestic abuse. It also showed the median age of a child receiving TANF is just under 2.

“I didn’t choose to go on TANF,” said Pam Smith, a divorced mother of three and recipient since 2007 who lives in southern Maine. Smith said she had to apply for benefits for several reasons, including the hospitalization of her son that required her to be home during his recovery.

“I wouldn’t be able to put a roof over my children’s head if it wasn’t for TANF,” Smith said.

A LePage spokesman called the report released today “helpful.”

“It reinforces the message that the solutions to welfare reform need to be focused on the individual’s needs” to move forward and out of welfare, said spokesman Dan Demeritt.

He added that the administration agrees with the report’s finding that many of those on welfare hold a succession of short-term jobs.