Michael Cole and Michael Green are both 24, married and beginning careers in the federal government. Cole, a mechanical engineer with a bachelor's degree, makes $24,705; so does Green, a program analyst with a master's degree.

But that's where the material likeness ends.

Cole, a civilian employee at the U.S. Army Missile Command in Huntsville, Ala., lives in a two-bedroom, $455-a-month apartment. He and his wife, a part-time nurse, own two cars, say they live comfortably and have saved enough money to start construction on a 2,000-square-foot, $90,000 home next spring. Renee Cole will quit her job in two years to raise the two children they plan to have.

Green, who works at NASA's Washington headquarters, lives in a one-bedroom, $800-a-month apartment in Crystal City. He and his wife, Ariadne, also a federal employee, have one car (he can afford insurance because his father pays half the bill) and figure they cannot buy a home or start a family for another five years. "It's even tough to buy clothes," lamented Green. "When we were in college, we were able to eat out more than we do now."

For 42 years, the federal government has lived by the simple creed that equity, an inalienable right of the career employees in an apolitical bureaucracy, meant uniformity. All employees at the same grade level on the federal pay scale took home the same paycheck.

But growing regional disparities in the cost-of-living and annual raises that fell far behind inflation are now blamed for a panoply of bureaucratic maladies: the failure to attract bright employees; the exodus of large numbers of professionals to the private sector; and campaigns by high-profile agencies to get special pay increases for their employees in high-cost cities.

The disparities make it hard for agency headquarters here to attract employees from regional offices in low-cost areas.

Congress is expected to consider scrapping the old system this month and replacing it with pay scales linked to local labor market wages.

The point behind the change is simple: Federal employees who make the same amount of money should be able to live in similar style, regardless of where they reside. Now, according to workers and experts, they do not.

In low-cost areas, government employees feel financially secure and are sometimes even the top wage earners in town, while those who live in expensive cities sometimes rank themselves at the bottom of the middle class.

Take 22-year-old Lisa Campbell, who makes $17,393 as a General Services Administration secretary. After nearly five years of government work, she still has to live with her father in Annandale because she can't find an apartment she can afford.

But Lori Garner, a secretary for the comptroller's office of the Missile Command in Huntsville who makes the same as Campbell, lives in a spacious one-bedroom, $175-a-month apartment and, after five years with the government, recently went looking for a house to buy.

"I can live on what I make," said Garner.

At the other end of the pay scale, which employees climb as they gain seniority and skills, are folks like government physicist Jerry Arszman of Huntsville and Michael Barna, an information officer with the Bureau of Mines in Washington.

Arszman makes $63,164; Barna, $71,060. Both have worked for the government for more than 15 years and consider themselves in mid-career. They are in the top 10 percent of the 2.4 million civilian federal wage earners and both are at points in their careers where financial pressures are supposed to be slacking off.

The men share the belief that serving the public is meritorious. They both enjoy their jobs and have no immediate plans to leave. Neither pleads poverty, but they describe their lives very differently.

Arszman lives in a 3,000-square-foot house in the upper-middle-class part of town on the hills to the east of downtown Huntsville, once a cotton town of 35,000. Today the population is 140,000, 14,000 of whom are military and civilian government employees.

Arszman's wife, Carole, recently went back to work as a schoolteacher. They have two children, take vacations to Florida, have three cars, have saved a small nest egg for their children's college education and when asked if they are wanting for anything they think they should be able to afford at this stage in their lives, they look at each other and shrug their shoulders.

"We live a comfortable life," answered Jerry Arszman.

David and Linda Barna and their three children live on the edge. "We have a nice house, a nice family. We live fine, but we have no money," said David Barna. "I could probably put my hands on $400 if I had to."

Linda Barna does not work outside the home and the couple lives in the 2,600-square-foot house they bought 10 years ago. The neighbors they had then have since moved on to more expensive neighborhoods -- replaced, said David Barna, by young families with young children. "They are us 10 years ago," he said.

Five years ago, Barna joined the Naval Reserves, in part to help make ends meet. He has car-pooled to work for 10 years. The couple has been on only one out-of-state vacation in 17 years, and their 16-year-old son does not have his driver's license because they cannot afford to add him to their insurance, which would then cost $1,200. The major financial debate this month has been whether they can afford the $60 swimming lessons for one child.

"I'm right square, dead-middle class," said Barna, a GS-15. "If you'd have told me 10 years ago that I'd be a GS-15, I would have said, 'Fine, let's build the castle right now.' "

His financial disappointment and his perception that the public is too critical of government employees ("I'm embarrassed to tell people where I work," he offered) has changed his mind about government service. No, he would not recommend it to his children, and if he did not like his job so much, he would probably leave for the private sector.

For the past 12 years, federal employees have lost considerable ground in comparison with the private sector. This year the president's pay advisers reported the gap between public and private sector pay averaged about 30 percent -- wider in high-cost than in low-cost areas. The pay proposal before Congress also would attempt to address the general gap by annually adjusting federal wages using some version of the Employment Cost Index, which measures changes in private sector wages.

Efforts in the past to revise the uniform pay scale were rebuffed time and again by employee concerns that the formula for paying workers different salaries depending on where they lived would be too complicated and would ultimately become unfair and subject to political pressures.

"There are people all over the country who won't mind citing to their congressman that someone in another locale is earning more than they are," said Ray Kline, president of the National Academy of Public Administration. "But the business of equity has got to be addressed not only in the context of one public servant compared to the other, but compared to people outside government."

The precise formula is already the subject of much debate. Under the Senate version approved last week as an appropriations amendment, locality adjustments would be made in regions where private-sector salaries as well as state and local government pay are above the national average. The House subcommittee on federal compensation and benefits wants federal pay to match local pay rates for comparable jobs.

Both versions would likely result in a map with hundreds of different boundaries, across which employees with identical ranks would be paid differently. All sides have agreed that no one's pay will be lowered.

"This is very complicated," said an aide to Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). "There will be great apprehension on the part of federal employees over how this is going to shake out."

The White House has committed $3.6 billion to the new system. The Senate bill would cost $5 billion over five years and the House version is estimated to cost $9.5 billion over the same period.

The change would take effect Oct. 1, 1992, although that date may be pushed back because of budget deficit problems. The other major stumbling block to an agreement is the administration's desire that the president be able to ignore his pay advisers and set the annual adjustment as he wishes. The House subcommittee and the federal employee unions want to take away this prerogative.

Employees who leave government make the best case for undoing the current system. In high-cost areas, 90 percent of the former employees interviewed by the General Accounting Office in May said pay was a "very important" reason for leaving the federal government, while 60 percent of employees in low-cost areas offered the same reason.

The stories of disparities are legion. Entry-level lawyers at the Internal Revenue Service in Los Angeles told the GAO that starting salaries were about $14,000 lower than what a new attorney could fetch in private practice there. Environmental engineers at the Naval Facilities Engineering Command in Philadelphia typically make $20,000 less than they would in private industry.

"Kids coming out of law school are getting $20,000 more than I do," said Robert Dublin, an attorney for the Department of Health and Human Services here who makes $65,444 after 22 years of service and has had to go into debt to put his daughter through college.

"I'm doing worse than I was 10-12 years ago," he said, "and when a highly trained government employee is getting substantially less than a new law student, you know something is wrong."