"Only 10 percent of Americans have passports."
Most people in the U.S. have probably had this statistic quoted to them at some point, and certainly most U.S. citizens abroad have had it quoted to them — probably many times.
During the three years I spent in the United Kingdom, I heard this legend about once a month. Now that I'm back home, I want to take an opportunity to discredit it, once and for jolly all.
The number itself is inaccurate (the most recent statistics put out by the U.S. State Department suggest the number is closer to 30%) but that's not the real issue. The reason foreigners love to quote this back to Americans is the problem.
The loaded assertion behind the myth is this: Americans, the perpetuator suggests, are happily isolating themselves from the rest of the world in the laziest of ways, reveling in cultural ignorance and scoffing at the very idea of going abroad. They could travel if they wanted to, the assumption goes, but they simply don't.
It is true that certain Americans might be criticized for a certain lack of foreign travel. The London Times headline reading "‘Stay-at-home' Barack Obama comes under fire for a lack of foreign experience" makes sense. Should the potential leader of the American military personally check out the lay of Middle Eastern lands? Given the fact that he could make senatorial claims on taxpayer subsidies for such a journey, I'd say that's a reasonable expectation. But people like Obama could afford it besides — he earned $1.7 million as recently as 2005 — and are accountable to others for how they spend their time and money (at least to some degree).
However, for the average American, traveling abroad is not nearly so feasible, economically or logically, and these are the people taking the brunt of the criticism. In an article written for the London Guardian, John Patterson claimed most Americans don't go abroad because it's a "drag", because they're "ridiculous, paranoid, pathetically insular and grotesquely self-pitying." And just so we didn't worry that any of this was hyperbolic, he explained that Americans "have no reason to hate or fear (foreigners), but they have given the rest of us a million reasons to hate and fear them."
Let's pretend you're the average American whose traveling habits Patterson, et. al. so detest. You, Jo(e) the plumber, and your spouse have two kids. Your income, the median income for all American households, as determined by the U.S. Census, is $50,233. Your housing, according to the Consumer Price Index, will cost you 32.6% of your income; you're left with $33,857. MSN Money reckons that your 4 and 6 year-old children will cost you $11,280 and $11,130 respectively; you're left with $11,448. The Environmental Protection Agency tells you just buying gas for your 2005 Dodge Neon will cost you $2,088, and it will cost at least $1,400 to insure two people in your house to drive, according to the Insurance Information Institute. The average annual premium for an employer health plan covering a family of four, as determined by the National Coalition for Health Care, will cost you another $3,300. You're left with $4,659.
Using the lowest price option on Orbitz.com, you'll find that the flights from Springfield, Missouri (a nice, average American locale) to Paris and a six night stay at a hotel will cost your family about $4,000—if you go in the off-season.
Now, given that you and your spouse, according to the above breakdown, have yet to eat anything (or buy anything else for that matter) this year, is it likely that you will be mincing around the banks of the Seine now or any time in the foreseeable future? No. You were going to struggle to make ends meet in the first place. Want to spend an extra $100 on a passport application fee just for fun? Probably not. Meanwhile, Europeans can fly to Barcelona, Belfast or Berlin for less than a swanky dinner in London town would cost them.
The logic behind criticizing Americans for not having passports is also kin to the maxim that if you haven't racked up a nice, long list of countries that you've stepped foot in, then you're not well-traveled. The fifty states may share a federal government, but that doesn't mean they're not as culturally and geographically disparate as many European countries.
There are Innuits bearing the cold in Alaska and people who only speak Spanish in sunny California. There are teetotaling Mormons in Utah canyon lands and maple syrup farmers in mountainous Vermont. People are cooking Creole dishes in boggy Louisiana, and wranglin' cattle in the deserts of Texas. (Etc., etc., etc.)
And doesn't break the bank for Jo(e) to drive to a neighboring state.
I do not, rest assured, harbor any illusions that foreign peoples can or should abandon the Yank-bashing fad entirely: unpopular political decisions have yet to exhaust their comeuppance. I do, however, present this with the hope that all Americans can recognize and wholeheartedly reject the non-constructive national criticism and its context-free statistics.
Katy Steinmetz is a reporter for the Missourian. She recently moved to Columbia after spending two years teaching in Winchester, England, and one year in Edinburgh, Scotland. She has freelanced for a variety of publications, from 417 Magazine in Springfield, Mo., to the Guardian in London. Katy plans to complete her MU master's degree in 2010.