Ray Salinas, Democrat and Roman Catholic and Chicano, a barber in teeming Houston, might seem to have little in common with Tom Price, Republican and Southern Baptist and white, a box-factory worker in tiny Lawrenceburg, Tenn.

But both are men who work hard without getting ahead, and as they speak, the differences between their backgrounds dissolve. What stands out is the similarity in their experiences of the world and the dreams they dream for their children.

Both meet life with limited means as part of America's working poor, the 17.6 million households between poverty and the middle class with incomes of $9,900 to $18,700 a year.

As such, Salinas and Price seem to share an unarticulated class consciousness forged by the choices that scarcity has imposed. They struggle to feed their families, hope no one gets sick, try to figure out where the money will come from to educate the children, try not to think about what will happen when they can't work anymore.

On the threshold of middle age, they seem to accept their struggle for economic survival as a routine necessity and the world as an uncaring place in which people like them have little influence. For the sake of the children, they worry about war and hope their babies don't find the world so hard a place as they have.

They have learned to accept painful memories without explanation: the death of the Prices' day-old daughter and of Salinas' 21-year-old sister from a stomach tumor. In the middle of the way, where T.S. Eliot says there is no sure foothold, both men seek their solace in church.

Last year, Tom Price, 37, earned about $12,000 as day manager at a local restaurant. This year, he is earning a bit more working third shift on the gluer at a nearby box factory. Maria, his wife of almost 18 years, did not work last year but expects to earn $6,000 or $7,000 this year at a local garment factory.

Ray and Hilda Salinas each earned about $5,500 last year. He works six days a week on 70 percent commission as a barber, which for years was merely his moonlighting job. Hilda is paid minimum wage for a four-day week at a shirt factory. They expect to make an equal amount this year.

Theirs are families that make too much money to qualify for more than token help from government, but too little money to avoid serious and constant financial problems.

"If I'm lucky to keep $20 in a week, I'm lucky," said Salinas, a stocky man with an easy smile. "But most, it's going to food or the car, utilities, the house note. We try, we try, but it's still a little rough."

Price says that, with a family of six, much of the money he and his wife take home goes for food. "Sometimes I'm able to save a little, then something comes up and takes it," he said.

Their personal finances have gotten worse, not better, over the past decade, an experience shared by many Americans whose raises usually come through increases in the minimum wage, which has been $3.35 an hour for nearly eight years.

"Even though my wife and I are working, we're making what we were back in '77 when it was just me working," Salinas said.

Price concurred. "Right after I got out of school, around '74, I was making $10,000, $11,000 a year," he said. "Compared to what things cost, that's more than I'm making now."

Both men have more questions than answers as to why they and others like them live in perpetual near-penury. Salinas blames President Reagan, for whom he voted in 1984. "Why doesn't the administration come out and look at the people?" he said. "Is Reagan aware that people here in the United States are starving? This is my personal question: Does he know what's going on?"

A hint of what Price suspects is happening may lie in how he sees the world his children will face as adults. He says the controlling factor will be greed, and he worries about "people who just think of lining their own pocket in our country."

In the tales Salinas and Price tell, one sees good men whose lives are constantly buffeted by forces beyond their control.

As they look at the events of their time, from Vietnam to the Iran-contra scandal, their experience leads them to focus on consequences, not intentions.

Salinas looks around him and wonders how he, a high school graduate and Air Force veteran trained as a mechanical draftsman and barber, has come to live on the economic brink.

"Years ago, I never thought that we were going to hit a situation like what we're in now," he said. "I thought I was always going to have a job and that I'd always be able to provide for my family."'Just Enough to Pay the Bills'

The Salinases live in a two-bedroom house with aluminum siding in a Houston neighborhood with trees but no sidewalks. Just Reynol Jr., 12, and Rosa Maria, 9, occupy the other bedroom now. Fernando, 21, joined the Air Force after he finished high school in June 1986.

Ray Salinas worries most about the younger children's education. "What I make is just enough to pay the bills and keep insurances on those two pieces of junk {cars} out there," he said.

Like many of the working poor, Salinas has a history of jobs rather than a career. He trained as a barber after finishing high school, earning a diploma that few Hispanic men his age have received. When a girlfriend spurned him, he joined the Air Force, in 1966.

At the end of his four-year hitch, Salinas took a course in mechanical drawing but couldn't find a job as a draftsman, so he worked nights at a brokerage house, processing the day's stock sales and purchases for $5 an hour.

Salinas helped support his parents and send his brother to college and law school. "Of all the family, he's the only one who got an opportunity to get a good education," he said. His brother went on to become a U.S. Justice Department lawyer and served briefly as a judge.

Shortly after Ray Salinas' discharge, he went to a wedding in Piedras Negras, across the Mexican border from Eagle Pass, Tex., and met Hilda, an articulate, Catholic-educated woman with a young son. He began courting her six months later ("I liked her way of expressing herself," he said) and they married in 1972.

"Fernando is by my wife's first marriage," Salinas said. "I raised him like ours since he was 5, 6 years old." Salinas supported his new family by working at anything he could get until finally landing a drafting job. He drew custom ventilators for fast-food grills for the next six years until, just before Christmas 1978, he was laid off.

As usual, the family went to Hilda's parents' house in Piedras Negras for the holidays -- and after New Year's, Salinas told her he had no job. He headed back to Houston alone. "That Christmas was one of the saddest," Salinas said, tears in his eyes.

He was still out of work when Hilda telephoned to tell him she was sick. The hospital bill took their savings, $600. "I got $120 a week on unemployment, and I had at least $400 a month in bills," he said. "That's scary."

At one point, jobless and facing foreclosure on the mortgage, he swallowed his pride and applied for food stamps. The application was denied because the house he was about to lose made him too wealthy.

"I needed the food for my family," he said. "I ask myself, how many people are there now who get rejected who need it?" The next day, he recalls gratefully, he found a job as a janitor. And the doctor allowed them to pay his $700 fee over two or three years.

"You don't find very many doctors like that," he said. "That's why I hope the economy picks up and we can buy some insurance, especially for Mom and myself."

Just after he retired that debt, Salinas was laid off again. He has been a full-time barber ever since. He now recalls his days as a draftsman wistfully. "I really enjoyed that kind of work," he said. "But it seems like when you get a certain age, people want a younger person."

Nonetheless, Salinas said, he enjoys life more and has a better relationship with Hilda since he went to a weekend religious retreat a few years ago. "It's a personal encounter with Jesus Christ," he said. "Of all the things I've had through life, it's the most beautiful experience I've had."

The family now attends Mass regularly, and Ray and Hilda lead a teen-age Bible study group in Spanish, the only language Hilda speaks. "We try to teach our children what we had forgotten," she said.

All in all, he said, his life has been easier than the lives of his father or his grandfather, who was a subsistence farmer in northern Mexico.

Wanting "a better future for his kids," Salinas' father brought his own young family to Galveston when Salinas was 2 years old. He found day work, mostly loading bananas and cutting cotton bales.

It was because his dad was out of work with four younger children to feed that Salinas went home to help instead of making the Air Force a career. Salinas said it was probably "a good thing" that he spent his service years in the motor pool at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana instead of in Vietnam.

"I have five friends who died in 'Nam, guys I knew from the base," he said. "You wonder what were we really doing there, and what was the purpose of so many lives being lost in that conflict. Up to today, I don't have an answer."

These days, he is troubled by the prospect of another war -- in Central America, perhaps, or the Persian Gulf. "All we can do is pray for peace," he said. "I don't know. Things are looking hot all over the world . . . . It seems like the other countries just want war, especially the Ayatollah Khomeini" in Iran.

At home, Salinas sees signs all around him that times are hard. "I never thought in my life that I'd see Anglo kids come in the barbershop barefooted with dirty clothes," he said. "We go out and help other countries and provide for them, and it's good. But I think our government should look to the American people first."

Salinas has not decided on a 1988 presidential candidate. He liked what Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) had to say in a televised debate he saw, but he wonders why politicians don't seem to deliver what they promise. "There's no one I can say, 'There's the one for the future.' "

An Unaffordable Aspiration

The Prices and their children, Thomas Jr., 16, Maria, 14, Theresa, 10, and Charles, 8, live on a quiet circle in quiet Lawrenceburg, population about 15,000, 50 miles northwest of Huntsville, Ala., in the rolling farmland of central Tennessee.

They live in a brick three-bedroom ranch-style house, where Tom Price hopes to turn the carport into a bedroom someday.

Price, a licensed Baptist preacher who believes that creation occurred in six days, taught mathematics and science in Christian academies after college and wishes he still could. The low pay, scant job security, skimpy fringe benefits and his family's growing needs forced him to seek a better-paying job.

"If I could find a situation where I could teach and make enough to live on, I'd do it," he said.

But Price, like Salinas, has been diverted from his druthers by his needs. "My oldest son will be graduating from high school this year," he observed. "He wants to go into engineering, with computers and robots and things like that. Maybe he'll go to Columbia State" nearby.

The summer after Price finished high school in 1968 in Lawrenceburg, his home town, he met his future wife, Maria, then 15 years old, at church. They were married that November and lived with Price's parents -- a decision that now seems to Maria a way of getting away from her own parents.

Tom dropped out of college before the second semester and worked for his father, a construction jobber, "digging footings, putting in septic tanks, putting in water lines."

But grief changed the direction of the Prices' lives. "We had one child who died in '75, lived a day," he said. "It sort of made us decide to devote some more to church work, because that's where we found comfort."

So the Prices moved to Chattanooga, about 130 miles to the east, where he majored in Bible at Tennessee Temple College and went on to spend a semester at Temple's seminary. He dropped out when he ran out of money, taking a job teaching junior- and senior-high school math at a Christian academy in Fort Pierce, Fla., 90 miles north of Palm Beach. It paid $8,000 a year.

There, Maria earned her high-school equivalency diploma and decided that one day she would go to college. Over the years, she has done three semesters' course work in hopes of becoming a psychologist. "It's very important to me," she said. "It proves who I am, that I'm not dumb the way my parents always told me I was."

Tom Price held a succession of teaching jobs. In Tallahassee, Fla., he managed to make $10,000 in 1984 by operating a backhoe on Saturdays when he was teaching seventh-grade math during the week at North Florida Christian School. He left his last teaching job in west Tennessee because he thought the principal used corporal punishment too much, including on Price's son, Tom Jr.

Price took a management-training job with Shoney's Big Boy, a regional restaurant chain. He spent four months in nearby Columbia, then was day manager in Lawrenceburg for two years.

"I got as much as $390 a week, counting the bonus, but I was working 55 to 60 hours a week," he said. "So it was fairly good money, but by the hour it wasn't a lot."

Also, Price complained, he had to work Sundays and holidays, missing church and time with his family. "My son went from a kid to young man, and it went by without my having time to spend with him, and I couldn't have that," he said.

Earlier this year, the Coors Packaging plant in Lawrenceburg was hiring and friends put in a good word for him. "I'm getting paid $7.75 an hour," he said. "I started at $5 an hour. I'll top out at $9 an hour as I get more skilled on the machines and can do more things."

Free health insurance there for his family, he said, is "worth a whole lot to me."

Although he does not want to teach in public schools, he sends his children there -- the same schools he attended as a child. "You just end up going home some time," he said. "It's sort of a case of looking for the place you like, and you can't find it." Maria, who never lived more than a year in one place as a child, wanted her children to have a home town and friends.

Price worries about the world in which Tom Jr. soon will be an adult. "People in the area are concerned about . . . the Persian Gulf and the Iran thing -- concerned what it might lead to," he said.

Despite Price's strong fundamentalist Christian beliefs, he said he is not interested in trying to shape them into public policy. "I think it's up to the church to go out and change people's hearts," he said. "I fear when you start legislating the moral stuff, for a while you may be in control, but somebody else may be later."

Price, a Republican, voted for Reagan in 1980 and 1984, but he said he was disturbed by the Iran-contra affair.

"Some people in their zealousness for doing what they felt had to be done went outside the law to do it," he said. "I feel that's a bigger danger to us than communism is. If you get in the habit of doing that, we could lose it all." 'We Window-Shop a Lot'

Price finds Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) "reasonably decent" among the announced presidential candidates. He said he would prefer another Tennessean, White House chief of staff and former Republican senator Howard H. Baker Jr., because "he's conservative but flexible enough to get things done."

Like Salinas, Price concludes, "I don't see anyone stepping out to the front and being a candidate that can draw people to him."

What preoccupies these men, like many others, is not politics but their families' futures. Each spoke of his children with unequivocal pride. "That cuckoo clock?" Salinas said. "My boy Fernando sent it to us from Germany. Sometimes the cuckoo goes, 'Oh, Fernando! Oh, Fernando!' "

Said Price, "Tom Jr. is getting mostly As and Bs. You know that book 'Who's Who in American High Schools'? He's in it."

And each took on a tone of quiet, familiar desperation as he spoke of getting by. "I keep telling my wife to slow down in the supermarket," Salinas said.

"In shopping," Hilda Salinas said, "one has to save every little centavo. The children are children so they want good clothes, good shoes, but we always have to tell them, 'We can't.' "

"We window-shop a lot instead of buying," Tom Price said. "It's rare that we go out to eat. We try to find things that are on clearance and compare to see which size is cheaper per ounce. It's not always the biggest one.

"You get a lot of things that aren't natural breads or fancy this or that," he continued. "You buy the cheapest salad dressing and mayonnaise. You go load up when they mark bread down . . . . You wash clothes and rinse in cold. Never use hot water."

"Sometimes I cry," Maria Price said. "Then I'll hold my head up and say, 'If the Lord wanted me to have it, he would have given it to me.' "

So in the middle of the way, where T.S. Eliot also says there are monsters, hope for Reynol Salinas Sr. and Thomas A. Price Sr. is what one has for the children more than for oneself. It is about what money can buy and about what it cannot.

"I dream that my daughter can go to a good college," Hilda Salinas said, "that little Reynol will study and get ahead. Those who study will be most prepared."

Ray Salinas spoke of the advice he gave recently to Fernando. "I said to my boy, 'Take care of yourself and try to save money. Put your money into savings so the day you get married, you don't have to go through what we're struggling with.'

"He said he understands better some of the things I've been saying to him all along," Salinas said. "I said, we all have to experience life as we go along."

Price said he would like his children to be able "to get by without having to watch every dollar quite so tight, not some weeks to have to do without on basics."

"I want them to be content in whatever they do," he continued. "I hope they stay active in the church. I hope they have a happy family. I hope the girls marry somebody who'll take care of them, and the boys better take care of whoever they marry. I hope they have a family life filled with love."

NEXT: On strike and falling behind