The top dividend stocks aren't those that pay the most, but the companies that consistently grow their dividends each year. That's because this growing income stream tends to fuel a higher total return, enabling these companies to outperform the market over the long term. That has certainly been the case for Brookfield Infrastructure Partners (NYSE:BIP) and Enterprise Products Partners (NYSE:EPD) over the past decade. While the S&P 500 has delivered a total return of more than 135%, Enterprise and Brookfield have handily beat that with total returns of 175% and 487%, respectively, over that same time frame.

While this past success is no guarantee of future returns, both companies have positioned themselves to continue raising their payouts in the coming years. That increases the odds that they can keep outperforming, making them among the top dividend stocks to consider buying for the long haul.

A man in a suit with a fan of $100 bills in his hand.

Image source: Getty Images.

54 and counting

Enterprise Products Partners, an energy midstream master limited partnership (MLP), has increased its payout 63 times in its nearly 20-year history as a public company, including in each of the last 54 quarters. Driving that remarkable consistency has been the company's conservative financial approach. Overall, Enterprise currently boasts one of the highest credit ratings in the MLP sector. It has achieved that high rating by retaining a meaningful portion of its cash flow to help finance expansion, which is unique in a sector that typically pays out nearly everything that comes in. The company's conservative approach paid big dividends for investors during the oil market's recent downturn, since Enterprise was able to continue increasing its payout at a time when many rivals had to reduce theirs to shore up their financial situations.

Enterprise Products Partners recently took its fiscal conservatism up another notch by deciding to slow the pace of distribution growth through the end of this year even though it has a massive slate of expansions entering service. This decision will enable the company to retain more cash to finance an even more significant portion of expansion spending starting next year, making its payout even safer in the process.

While the company recently put the finishing touches on $4.5 billion of growth projects, it has another $5.5 billion currently under construction, which should steadily increase cash flow through 2020. That visible growth positions Enterprise to continue expanding its 7%-yielding payout each quarter for at least the next several years.

An electricity transmission pylon in the evening.

Image source: Getty Images.

Shifting into second gear

Global infrastructure giant Brookfield Infrastructure Partners also has a long history of sending more cash to investors. Overall, it has increased its payout every year since going public nearly a decade ago, and by an impressive 11% compound annual growth rate over that time frame. Powering that steady growth is the company's knack for making value-based acquisitions that move the needle. In 2016, for example, the company took advantage of a growing political and economic crisis in Brazil to purchase a major natural gas pipeline system at an excellent price. That deal helped fuel an exceptional 2017 in which cash flow jumped double digits, which enabled the company to increase its payout 8% for 2018.

While Brookfield Infrastructure has mainly relied on acquisitions to drive growth over the past 10 years, the company has enough embedded organic growth potential to continue steadily increasing its payout as it enters its second decade as a public company. Overall, the company sees a combination of inflationary price increases, higher volumes, and incremental cash flow from the $2.6 billion of expansion projects it has under way increasing cash flow at a 6% to 9% annual rate over the next few years. That growing cash flow stream should enable the company to boost its distribution to investors by 5% to 9% per year over the long term.

That plan has ample upside since Brookfield Infrastructure maintains a strong balance sheet, which gives it the financial flexibility to continue making deals. In fact, the company just cashed in on one asset, giving it the money to pounce should a compelling opportunity arise. Overall, Brookfield sees several exciting growth areas ahead of it, including data and water infrastructure, as well as expanding its presence in Asia and investing in making cities smarter. The company's ability to capture these opportunities could enable it to increase its 4.5%-yielding payout at the high end of, or above, its long-term growth target in the coming years.

Top income stocks for the long haul

Enterprise and Brookfield Infrastructure not only pay investors well, but they build those payouts on a firm financial foundation. That balance sheet strength enables both companies to continue expanding their businesses, which increases cash flow, giving them the money to raise their payouts consistently. With ample growth coming down the pipeline, this duo is among the top dividend stocks around.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.