Circles USA is the result of more than 20 years of research.

Circles USA began in Ames, Iowa, as the Move the Mountain Leadership Center, funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation to find long-term solutions for reducing poverty.

During the 1990s, Move the Mountain developed and researched a community-led support system, and by 2001, it was obvious that the effort was working—families were moving out of poverty for good. The term Circles was coined to represent the relational approach of getting people off of welfare and into jobs through peer support from middle-income volunteers. In 2004, Iowa State University confirmed the success of Circles, having studied 57 participants who got off welfare after 10 months, despite being on welfare for an average of four years.

“So far, the best and maybe the only program that works to employ the chronically poor and hard to employ—and has the critical elements to scale—is Circles.”
— Mark Lautman, Albuquerque Community Economics Lab

In 2014, the organization began doing business as Circles USA. Today, Circles USA meets at more than 80 locations in 22 states and parts of Canada.

More than 300 foundations, individuals, and corporations support Circles USA. The Walmart Foundation gave a $500,000 grant to Circles USA. The University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business honored Circles with a research grant.

Organizations such as United Way, Goodwill Industries, United Methodist Church, Lutheran Social Services, Community Action Partnerships, and Catholic Charities have implemented the Circles USA model. It has also been adopted by local organizations, such as community colleges, housing corporations, workforce development centers, human service systems, community neighborhood centers, and hospitals.

In 2020 during the pandemic, Circles chapters responded by moving their trainings and weekly gatherings to online platforms so their vital work could continue.

The success of Circles USA has been featured in a variety of local and national news reports.