A REGIONAL inspector general for the Department of Agriculture has issued an audit report claiming that over an 18-month period the District government paid out $1.1 million in food stamps and welfare aid to people who didn't meet program qualifications. There is much less to this report than meets the eye.

If, in fact, the District had paid out $1.1 million in erroneous benefits over this period, it would actually have been setting records for good management of very complicated programs. Over an 18-month period, the District pays out about $70 million in food stamps alone, so that $1.1 million in misdirected payments would represent an error rate of only 11/2 percent and less than 1 percent if welfare benefits were included in the base. This would be an enviable record for any government or, indeed, for a private corporation engaged in a similar business.

In fact, the District's error rate is shown by its own quality control surveys to be considerably higher. This is why the city's Department of Human Services has been making a major effort over the last few years to upgrade its staff and automate its payment and checking procedures. But these efforts are not helped by federal audit reports that do not, in fact, demonstrate what they claim.

The $1.1 million figure was arrived at by having a computer compare benefits paid to recipients in a given month with earnings drawn from quarterly wage records from government and private employers. As DHS has noted, it is perfectly possible that a person was eligible for food stamps and welfare aid in a given month but had earnings during other months. In fact, in the handful of audit cases that have so far been rechecked, no fraud was found.

The report also claims that $2.2 million was overpaid in other cases in which DHS had failed to recheck eligibility as soon as regulations require. The calculation assumed, however, that all of these cases would have been ineligible if they had been checked. But--as the Agriculture Department noted in a November report to Congress--verifications performed on similar cases in nine other audit areas demonstrated that less than one out of five questioned cases turned out to be ineligible.

DHS recognizes that further improvements are needed and that the Agriculture Department can be helpful in suggesting changes. But it is finding that using computers to detect likely fraud doesn't solve the problem of verifying discrepancies and collecting overpayments. That not only takes plenty of well-trained administrative staff, but also means that legal authorities have to devote their scarce resources to prosecuting cases that may seem like small potatoes compared with other concerns--note that the average monthly overpayment to the 3,889 cases claimed in the audit was only $16.

Making welfare programs run fairly and efficiently should be a major concern of all levels of government. The process isn't helped, however, when federal watchdog agencies spend most of their time barking over unproved findings.