Folks at the state Department of Social Services had reason to be happy this week.

They received notice that they qualified for a $2 million bonus from the federal government for reducing their error rate in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or what used to be called food stamps.

Unfortunately, just because the government is handing out the award doesn't mean DSS will get the money.

Which is a shame, because the department could really use it.

So it needs to rely on the good graces of the governor. Clearly there's no reason to worry there. It's not as though the governor just vetoed funding for a bunch of other programs.

How they did it When a state's error rate for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program is above the national average, which was 3.8 percent last year, the federal government can impose financial penalties.

Nobody wants that. South Carolina was able to bring its rate below the national average, decreasing it by two percentage points, from 5.14 in 2010 to 3.14 in 2011.

How did the staff do that? By sitting down once a month and reviewing 1,200 randomly selected cases, to look at the benefits.

Now, don't think the fed is taking DSS' word for the fact that they improved. Yes, quality-control reviews are part of social services, but nothing is official until it gets reviewed by the federal government.

So at this point, “we're pretty sure that it's accurate,” said Alyce Player, director of the department's family assistance division.

As a result of these monthly review sessions, DSS was able to provide more instructions to the counties to help keep the problems from happening in the future. Many problems dealt with earned income, said Sandy Allen, SNAP director for the state.

Sometimes a client inadvertently forgets to tell the agency about earned income. Sometimes, the directors acknowledged, a client forgets on purpose. Or sometimes the agency makes an error in computing benefits.

Regardless, nobody wants to see benefits going to people who shouldn't get them.

“When you have a good accuracy rate, there is no burden on the client,” Allen said. That's the kind of thing the agency is trying to avoid, and it obviously is succeeding.

Waiting game The USDA will probably present the money within the next 30 to 60 days, but it will present it to the state, not DSS.

That may not bode well for DSS. For instance, a federal settlement the state received for mortgage fraud is not, somewhat surprisingly, going to help homeowners who are in danger of foreclosure.

The department has received federal bonuses in the past, not just for accuracy but for debt collection and increased participation, but none since 2003. So the money would definitely help.

And although new applicants are leveling off, there was a significant amount of growth in the past five years.

“We're serving many more people with pretty much the same staff for the past five years,” Allen said, about 72 percent more.

Clearly, they already know something about efficiency, but the money could help. It could “put more computers in our lobbies,” Player said. That would help another DSS initiative, encouraging people to apply online for benefits. “There are all kinds of things that we could do that are already in our think tank.”

So now it's just up to the state to do the right thing.

Reach Digital Editor Melanie Balog at mbalog@postandcourier.com or 937-5565.