Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

A Nation of Homebodies

June 3rd, 2009 · 10 Comments

homesweethomeYesterday we came across an alarming factoid: Only 30 percent of our fellow Americans hold a passport. That strikes us as absurdly low, especially now that all travel to Mexico and Canada will require the precious document. And while one could argue that the expense of international travel is a factor in our exceptionally low passport rate, we suspect that a combination of laziness and lack of curiosity are the real culprits. We are, alas, not a nation of travelers—the anti-Australia, basically. And Microkhan can’t help but think this fact bodes ill. (For comparison’s sake, 54 percent of Canadians hold passports, and the rates in most EU countries are well north of 70 percent—though, granted, the continent’s relatively small size has to be taken into account in the latter case.)

Thinking about our passport malaise got us thinking about a related issue: Domestic mobility. If we’re shy about going abroad, we wondered, are we also reticent when it comes to moving too far away from our usual surroundings? To our great surprise, the Census survey on historical geographical mobility revealed that we’re becoming increasingly anchored to our current coordinates. In 1947-48, the first period in which mobility was measured, 6.4 percent of Americans moved to a different county, and 3.1 percent moved to a different state. Sixty years later, the respective figures were 3.7 percent and 1.6 percent.

What gives? Home ownership rates are doubtless the prime factor. And therein lies a downside of the whole “ownership society” program. There’s something to be said for having the ability to pull up stakes for better opportunities elsewhere. In fact, as a native of the Golden West, our home state (California) could not have existed without such mobility.

But is there something else at work here, too? Has the homogenization of the American landscape disincented folks from moving (since they figure one place is surely much like another)? And why haven’t The Tubes enabled people to work from where they want, at least in more significant numbers?

Of course, we’re one to talk. Our job is about as mobile as they come, yet we’ve been headquartered on the same miniscule, overcrowded, garbage-strewn island for a decade now. And the farthest we’ve roamed so far in 2009 was up to Lake Placid for a day. So, yes, Microkhan is apparently part of the problem.


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10 Comments so far ↓

  • Captured Shadow

    I think you hit some the main reasons for not having a passport. The US is pretty big and you can experience some pretty different cultures within it. How do we compare with say Brazil, or India in terms of passport holding rate. Maybe you’d have to adjust for Income level too somehow. Anyway it reminded me a of a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer, who not only had never been out of the country before, but was the first one in his extended family to get a passport. Gutsy

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Captured Shadow: Another thing to consider is the relative ease of obtaining a passport in the U.S. I’m not saying it’s absolute cake, but the bureaucracy here is much more easily navigable than the one in, say, India. (I think the longest queue I ever saw was in Calcutta, in front of a passport office.)

    We’ll never compete with the Europeans, due to sheer geography. But 30 percent? That’s pretty low–I think we shouldn’t lag that much behind the Canadians.

  • Eric

    Isn’t it also a consideration that we have a wide variety of nation to visit just within our borders? We have wintry climes, mountains, deserts, oceanfront, Hawaii, Alaska, and the like, not to mention for a long time it was possible to cruise to places like Bermuda or the Caribbean/Mexico without a passport. Isn’t it logical that Americans might not need a passport since there’s such a variety of travel to be done *within* the country’s borders?

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Eric: Certainly, we’ve got all sorts of vacation-friendly climes within our borders. And the cruise thing hadn’t occurred to me–didn’t realize a passport wasn’t required to disembark at ports of call.

    It’ll be interesting to see how the new Canada/Mexico rules affect passport applications in the coming few years. Enough demand there to get us above 50 percent?

  • Eric

    Probably. It also is likely to affect all cruise-goers. It used to be that cruise ships were allowed to let you back on board with just a US drivers license and a valid copy of your birth certificate – that was how the Canadian/Mexican border worked too, I believe?

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Eric: The land border crossings weren’t even that arduous–just a driver’s license would suffice.

    If people get passports for Canada/Mexico, will it make them more likely to chance trips farther afield? Sure hope so. A slightly less parochial worldview would probably do our national discourse good.

  • Jordan


    Sometimes even a driver’s license wasn’t necessary. I remember getting back across the Mexican border with my student ID back in 1997. Admittedly I was also with a group coming back from a mission trip, but they still didn’t ask for anything more.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: Ah, the mid-’90s…the halcyon days of national innocence. Or something like that.

  • William

    So how about some stats on % of passport holders in other countries (asia, south America etc.)?

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @William: Surprisingly tough to get good stats on the likes of Brazil, Indonesia, etc. But let me poke around see what I can come up with. Japan, in particular, would be an interesting point of comparison.