Being a government clerk or secretary in a small town can mean the good life. For many, it provides a modest to very good income placing them among the area's leading wage earners.

But a similar federal job in New York, San Francisco or Washington is barely enough to keep some above the poverty level. Studies show that many low-paid government employes have to moonlight. Some have qualified legally for welfare assistance while on federal payroll.

Unlike private industry, where secretarial pay can vary $200 per week from city to city, the government for the most part continues to pay clerks, scientists and secretaries the same whether they work in Boston, Mass., or Boston, Va.

The Carter administration as outlined here last Monday is considering abandoning its national wage scale for most federal jobs. It is thinking about indexing federal employes on a metropolitan or geographic basis to the prevailing rate in industry.

Nobody knows for sure what a system like that would do. But indications are that it would mean substantially higher wages for big city federal workers, and smaller future increases for their colleagues in smaller southern and western towns.

The proposal is to have a national federal pay rate for each grade. It would be indexed to 10. Wage surveys made of local counterpart industry and jobs would establish whether government white collar employes would be paid more, or less than the national federal rate.

Under such a system, federal workers in Boston might get a rate pegged at 115 percent of the federal standard, Washington area clerical employes might get around 103, and government employes in San Antonio would come in at 85 or 90 percent of the national federal pay standard. That, depending on where you work, sounds either good or bad. But it is not unusual in industry.

Take, for example, pay in the newspaper business. According to Commerce Department figures, newspapers employ about 399,000 people, ranging from clerks and reporters to printers and other production people. It is a highly unionized industry where wages and fringe benefits are bargained often at the price of lengthy strikes.

According to The Newspaper Guild, the average top minimum pay for stenographers after three years of experience at union newspapers is $239 a week. But the city-by-city difference is tremendous.

Top salary for an experienced stenographer is $320.75 per week at the Boston Herald-American. The New York Times and The Washington Post run neck and neck, at the 287.53 and $286.50 level. San Jose (Calif) Mercury stenos after two years earn $285.53. The Boston rate is much higher than the comparable steno pay in government which, with comparable experience, is about $165.38 a week.

But stenographers at the Norfolk Virginia-Pilot get $139.00 after three years. The Sioux City Journal pays $158.70 after four years and The Indianapolis Star rate is $187.15 after three years. Local conditions, as well as union bargaining, account for the big salary differential between ciites.

Government clerks' pay is the same wherever an employe works. It can range from $6,561 to start to nearly $10,000 after long, long service. But the rates are the same for the same job, regardless of locals. Not so in the newspaper industry.

The highest clerk pay of 141 union newspapers surveyed as of December 1, 1978 was at the Fresno (Calif.) Bee. It was $283.71 after four years. The Washington Post and New York Times were next, with the Boston Herald-American rate, after three years, at $244.25.

At the low end of the clerical scale, the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune and Herald and Lansing (Mich.) State Journal give stenographers about $151 after one year, in Duluth and after four years service in Lansing. The government pay rate for those jobs is the same in Boston as it is in Lansing.

The government rate for telephone operators is the same city by city. In the newspaper industry, it is highest in Boston, Washington, Stockton (Cal.), New York and Sacramento, ranging from $298 to $259 after three years. San Juan had the lowest ( $135) and then Canton, Ohio and San Antonio newspapers, ranging from $135 to $170. Some nonunion newspapers paid higher rates, but most lower. The government rate is the same except in Puerto Rico where a cost-of-living differential is paid.

The purpose is not to compare federal pay with newspaper clerical rates -- too many variables! But it does illustrate to some extent the different ways government and industry handle salaries, and what the government system in the future might look like.