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Many of the steadily worsening problems that plague nations everywhere - crime, welfare dependency, drugs, inadequate education - have their origins in one place: the family.

More than $300 billion is spent each year in picking up the pieces of failed families. Yet while treating these costly symptoms, little is done to tackle the problem at its source. Until recently, when families and family values became a political issue, they were largely ignored.The United Nations has declared 1994 as the International Year of the Family and is devoting considerable energy to identifying problems and seeking possible ways to help and strengthen families. The effort has drawn support from nations around the globe and significant backing from the private sector as well.

Previous U.N. "years" - such as the Year of the Women, the Year of the Child, the Year of the Disabled - have tended to emphasize "rights" for downtrodden segments of society. But the Year of the Family is putting more focus on "responsibility." If families are to be strengthened, that is where everything must begin.

Henryk J. Sokalski, U.N. coordinator for Year of the Family, was in Utah this week to pay tribute to Salt Lake Mayor Deedee Corradini for the city's proposal to establish a "Patron Cities Program" - a network through which cities and private business can share information and strategies for helping families.

A global conference of mayors, international representatives and business leaders will be hosted by Salt Lake City next March to explore family problems and seek ways to strengthen families.

U.N. officials hope the conference can produce a practical follow-up program of mutual support that will extend years into the future. That may be difficult, but it is worth trying.

From the U.N. perspective, there were some concerns about sponsoring a Year of the Family because the definition of family and the cultural differences and values are so varied around the world. But it turns out that families are not that much different in their basic hopes and concerns.

Four regional conferences already held around the globe have shown that most of the problems afflicting families are similar from culture to culture. They include such things as not enough jobs, a lack of work ethic and responsibility among too many young males, growing numbers of single-parent families headed by women and children growing up without being taught basic values.

The lessons being learned in the Year of the Family re-emphasize an old truth: Stable families are essential to a stable society.

If families can be strengthened, then many of the symptoms of failed families - crime, immorality, violence, poor education - should begin to improve. Less crime and violence and better education, in turn, can strengthen the family. As they say, one hand washes the other.