Richard Florida
by Richard Florida
Wed Mar 16th 2011 at 10:00am UTC

America’s Great Passport Divide

There are Red States and Blue States, rich states and poor states, and Bible and Rust-belt states. But now we must add Globe-trotting and Stay-at-home states to that list too – that is, according to new data on the percentage of Americans who have a passport. The map below – which has been getting a lot of attention on-line (via Grey’s Blog) – charts the trend for the fifty states.

New Jersey boasts the highest percentage of passport holders (68%); Delaware (67%), Alaska (65%), Massachusetts (63%), New York (62%), and California (60%) are close behind.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, less than one in five residents of Mississippi are passport holders, and just one in four residents of West Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama and Arkansas.

It’s a fun map. With the exception of Sarah Palin’s home state, it reinforces the  “differences” we expect to find between the states where more worldly, well-travelled  people live versus those where the folks Palin likes to call “real Americans” preponderate. Mostly to entertain myself, I decided to look at how this passport metric correlates with a variety of other political, cultural, economic, and demographic measures.  What surprised me is how closely it lines up with the other great cleavages in America today.  The statistical correlations  generated by my colleague Charlotta Mellander are genuinely striking, among the strongest I have seen for virtually any measure.  While my usual caveats stand—our analysis deals with associations only, correlation and causation are not the same thing—the results are intriguing and perhaps provide another window into America’s divide.

Let’s begin with income. If one assumes that people with more money are more likely to travel overseas, one would be absolutely correct.

There is a considerable correlation between passports and both median income (.81) and per capita economic output (.70). No matter how you slice it, wealthier states have more passport holders.

It’s also reasonable to assume that more highly educated people would be more likely to hold a passport. And that too is what we find across the states. There is a considerable correlation (.80) between passports and human capital levels (measured as the percentage of a population with a bachelor’s degree or higher).  What’s really striking is that this correlation holds even when we control for income, using a statistical procedure called partial correlation analysis.

Passport holding also reflects the structure of state economies. There is a substantial correlation (.70) between the percentage of passport holders and the percentage of the workforce in knowledge-based and creative jobs.  Conversely, there is significant negative correlation between passport holders and the share of the workforce in blue-collar working class jobs (-.82). Working class states have considerably less passport holders than creative class states. Again, the correlations hold when we control for income.

States with higher percentages of passport holders are also more diverse. There is a considerable correlation between passports and the share of immigrants or foreign-born population (.63) and also gays and lesbians (.54). The more passport holders a state has, the more diverse its population tends to be.  And yes, these correlations hold when we control for income.

What about politics? How does passport holding line up against America’s Red state-Blue state divide?  Pretty darn well, actually.  There is a considerable positive correlation between passports and Obama voters (.59) and a significant negative one (-.61) for McCain voters.  It appears that more liberally-oriented states are more globally oriented as well, or at least their citizens like to travel abroad. Again, the correlations hold when we control for income, though they are a bit weaker than the others.

Passport holding also reflects something about the underlying personality of places.  American states are not only sorting by income, education and political orientation, but by personality type, according to research by the Cambridge University psychologist Jason Rentfrow and his colleagues.  Passport holding is in fact related to three of the five major personality types.  There are positive correlations between passports and Openness-to-Experience personalities, and negative ones to both Agreeableness and Conscientiousness.  “The results suggest to me that this is also linked to Openness,” Rentfrow noted after looking over these findings. “Openness is about curiosity and adventure, so it would make sense that Open places have high numbers of passports.”

And finally, states with more passport holders are also happier. There is a significant correlation (.55) between happiness (measured via Gallup surveys) and a state’s percentage of passport holders.  Yet again, that correlation holds when we control for income.

There are stark cultural differences between places where international travel is common and those where it’s not, and we can see them playing out in the cultural and political strife that has been riving the country over the past decades. Think of John Kerry, who was accused of looking and sounding “French” and George W. Bush, who’d hardly been overseas before he became president, or for that matter Barack Obama, with his multi-cultural global upbringing, and Sarah Palin, who had to obtain a passport when she traveled to Kuwait in 2007. The trends in passport use reflect America’s starkly bifurcated system of infrastructure. One set of places has great universities and easy access to international airports; another an infrastructure that is much further off the beaten track of the global circulation of capital, talent, and ideas.

Passport holding provides a window into America’s big sort—in fact it serves as a robust indicator for all the other things that so divide us.

20 Responses to “America’s Great Passport Divide”

  1. Nick Says:

    Meaningless. There are more unspohisticated, rural, under-educated people living far outside the major metro areas of New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco than probably live in all of Mississippi. To extrapolate that to an entire state makes little sense.

    Comparing “red” metro areas like Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Charlotte, and Phoenix to “blue” metro areas like LA, SF, NYC, Boston, and DC would be a more accurate comparison, and I bet per capita they would be nearly even.

  2. Michael Wells Says:

    I don’t know about Red & Blue. I do think that state level data has limitations. If data existed comparing cities vs rural in many states it would show a big contrast, and that the various factors above (education, income, etc.) would hold up. For example in Oregon, I’d expect Portland to be much higher than Eastern Oregon or small towns down the Willamette Valley. Or San Francisco Bay Area & LA to be higher than California’s more agricultural Central Valley.

    The passport of course isn’t the important thing, but the international travel. I was just in Mexico with a group that included a Belgian, a Swiss/Mexican, two Uraguayans, a Canadian and four Americans. Everyone except me & one other American were good to fluent in Spanish, most had good English and maybe one or two other languages. I felt like a hick, which was a good reminder of how isolated monolinguistic Americans are, even many who travel.

  3. Nick Says:

    @Michael Wells – my point exactly. Even my hometown of Syracuse NY would look impressive vs more rural parts of New York State, but would dwarfed by New York City.

  4. Ted Says:

    I’m afraid I need to disagree with your analysis. While you correctly point out that correlation and causation are not the same, you fail to point out the most glaring limitation: you are not measuring data at the individual level, but at the population level. What you are unable to address is the ‘ecologic fallacy’ – that one cannot know from this analysis whether, for instance, it is truly the wealthy people in wealthy states that own passports, or if the poorest in these states tend to own passports. Please see:

  5. analytics Says:

    Commenter Nick needs to take a refresher course in critical thinking. Sure, there are more yahoos in the far reaches of upstate New York and rural California than in all of Mississippi. But the point is not the existence of vast numbers of yahoos, it’s the non-existence of sophisticated, urban, educated people. As for Nick’s suggestion that we compare metro areas, he needs to check the data. Atlanta is fairly high on the list but still can’t touch Boston, NY and the Bay Area. And Charlotte and Phoenix? Don’t make me laugh.

  6. Nick Says:


    Something to critically think for yourself: why, with all those worldly, educated, urban sophisticated people, are the states they live in an absolute mess? Illinois, New York, California are all on the verge of bankruptcy. Growth and / or population has slowed or actually gone backwards. State taxes are sky high. Businesses are leaving in favor of states with less repressive taxes, better costs of living, and superior educational opportunities.

    Creative people live everywhere. My only point was that Massachusetts appears more sophisticated because of Boston alone. To extrapolate Boston’s dominance to an entire state makes little sense. Atlanta is home to more Fortune 500 companies than all but NYC or Chicago; does that make Georgia more “whatever” than California?

    BTW – I got a 3.8 in Critical Thinking, along with a Bachelors in Architecture and an MBA. I’m not sure if I qualify as a creative class member. But I did let my passport expire a couple years ago, though.

  7. Nick Says:

    @ Commentator:

    Also, an inordinate number of students and academic-types hold passports. I’d love to see these numbers adjusted to show non-students and non-academics over 28 years old. While I do not doubt the coasts would still be greater, the differences would be less.

    How does an over-educated barista or an under-educated trust fund baby with a passport equate to a hard working self-starter with a mortgage, employees, responsibilities, and a passport?

  8. barry Says:

    Now that one can no longer drive into Canada, for the most part,without a passport, we should expect the main border crossing roads to have an effect on their whole state. The same reason that Alaska is so high, I suspect.

  9. G Says:

    To Nick (#1) who says “Comparing “red” metro areas like Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Charlotte, and Phoenix to “blue” metro areas like LA, SF, NYC, Boston, and DC would be a more accurate comparison, and I bet per capita they would be nearly even.”

    Wrong. Big Metro areas even in solidly Red States tend to be quite blue and in many cases even dark blue. Las Vegas or Denver or Cleveland or Dallas or Austin are actually blue the more you drill down to the parts where educated people live.

  10. KenZ Says:

    To Nick,

    I live in TX. This data seems pretty accurate.

    BTW, the Texas budget is a disaster that was papered over in 2009 by Federal stimulus. The 2011 budget cycle deficit is the worst per capita in the nation and worse than anything that CA or NY has had to go through.

  11. Thomas Wilkie Says:

    Great article. I’m trying to figure out why poor, uneducated, people would vote for those politicians who want to move the few jobs they have overseas, and remove any protections from old age or health disasters,and increase their taxes so they can reduce the taxes of those best off. Sort of off topic, but what the heck.

  12. G. Wolfe Says:

    It would be interesting to see if there is a significant correlation between passports and subscribers to “The Economist”

  13. KenC Says:

    I would just point out that the three lowest categories of passport holders, all the groups under 40% penetration, are non-border states, except for New Mexico. Clearly, geographic distance to a border plays a role.

  14. RyanV Says:

    More granularity and interesting than the simple red and blue. Even if the analyses were to be extended to the metro/rural regions, similar pattern still existed. Urban voters, whether from blue or red states, overwhelmingly go for blue candidates (or moderate reds) than rural voters as past elections have shown. One more parameter which was not mentioned is religion. It would be interesting to see any correlation there. Red state voters are likely value and not pragmatic voters, even, as one of the commentator noted, the politicians elected are trying to undo whatever safety net left for their electorates.

  15. The Blog Fodder Says:

    I see the people from the “Stay Home and Stay Stupid” states are upset by this blinding flash of the obvious.

    The commenter who questioned why the people in the poorest states continue to vote for the party that makes them poor and wants to take what little they have left away and give it to the rich, certainly asked the right question.

  16. M. J. Shepley Says:

    Just on the map (like the partialing of other factors, good picture development there)—It might be good to break down-as if the info existed- how those passports were used, keeping in mind you have to have one now even for Canada and Mexico, I believe (hence the unusual unexpected surge in AK).

    It might tighten up the argument over the “cosmopolitan” factor even better.

  17. enough3 Says:

    If you want to learn something really important about blue states and red states, read these charts which show that the blue states subsidize the red states on a chronic basis. Blue states, with a few small exceptions, pay more taxes to the federal government than those states receive in Federal spending, and the red staes are the net recipients, year after year. The negative economic multiplier effect on the blue states is dismal, and may account for the high state income and sales tax rates, and be positive for the multiplier effect in the red/recipient states. So the red states are on welfare.

    Here for 1981 – 2005 state by state for each year:

    Comments like Nick (#10) need to understand this before asking another question like his above.

  18. Ogden Wernstrom Says:

    Michael Burns, I think you see the things you want to see, and should have tried seeing the message for what it is before becoming defensive. Perhaps you can perform your own research, if it doesn’t fracture your ideology.

    I’d protest being stuck in Paraguay, too, with the Partido Colorado in charge.

    Being close to Canada doesn’t really apply to Florida, Maryland, Connecticut….

    But the weirdest thing about your post is the part about “vacation or broadening”, “correlation between passport holding and …”. I think that the intent of a passport holder is insignificant compared to the effect that travel may have. If your point is that business travelers are less worldly than those whose purpose is vacation or ‘broadening’, I suspect those business travelers would disagree. If your point is something else, is it relevant to the matter at hand? If your point is something else, please make your point clearly.

  19. Kurtisj Says:

    “I see the people from the “Stay Home and Stay Stupid” states are upset by this blinding flash of the obvious.

    The commenter who questioned why the people in the poorest states continue to vote for the party that makes them poor and wants to take what little they have left away and give it to the rich, certainly asked the right question.”

    Too true. “What’s the matter with Kansas” really helps put “stay stupid” political decision making in context.

  20. runescape highscores Says:

    another factor: immigrations.

    California, New york and illinois(my home states) have plenty of immigrants who need passports if they want to move between countries..