Dividend-paying stocks tend to beat the market in the long run. The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES:^DJI) is packed with 30 dividend payers, hand-picked for their staying power. The cream of the dividend-paying crop among these 30 elite stocks should provide a fantastic income-generating foundation for any long-term investing portfolio, including yours. But how do you find the best of the best?

One way is to rank the Dow components by dividend growth. By that measure, here are the top three Dow stocks over the last five years:

Stock

5-Year Compound Average Dividend Growth (CAGR)

CAPS Rating

UnitedHealth Group (NYSE:UNH)

101%

*****

Visa (NYSE:V)

46%

****

McDonald's (NYSE:MCD)

22%

****

Data from S&P CapitalIQ.

On average, UnitedHealth has more than doubled its dividend every year over the last half-decade. Visa's 46% annual growth rate and McDonald's' 22% CAGR look downright timid next to the health insurance giant's massive dividend strides.

But it ain't that simple, dear Fool. You see, Visa and McDonald's built their dividend growth one step at a time, raising their payouts like clockwork every year. UnitedHealth started its five-year payout growth story with a bang, raising its nominal $0.03 dividend per share in 2009 to $0.41 in 2010. When you start out with a more than tenfold increase, you're kind of skewing the whole five-year story.

This is what the top three payout growth stories look like in a five-year perspective:

UNH Dividend Chart

UNH Dividend data by YCharts.

UnitedHealth has followed that initial surge with growth rates consistently north of 30%. Visa has delivered 40% annual dividend increases or better three times in the last five years, while McDonald's never crossed the 30% threshold.

So UnitedHealth is still one of the Dow's strongest dividend growers, with or without that 2010 leap. Just don't expect another sudden 1,250% surge like the one we saw that year, because that was a one-time event based on UnitedHealth finally taking dividend payouts seriously.

And while UnitedHealth stock may have shot past Visa's timid dividend yields, it still runs far behind McDonald's in the current income-generating perspective.

UNH Dividend Yield (TTM) Chart

UNH Dividend Yield (TTM) data by YCharts.

One size most definitely doesn't fit all. If you're looking for big payouts now, McDonald's might fit your portfolio better than either of its high dividend-growth peers. For investors with a long-term view, McDonald's might actually be the worst of these three choices due to its slower payout growth.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends McDonald's, UnitedHealth Group, and Visa. The Motley Fool owns shares of McDonald's and Visa. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

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