Strong businesses that consistently boost their dividend payouts can provide investors with a steadily rising income stream that essentially equates to a raise every year. And, well, who doesn't like a raise?

Moreover, there are other reasons to appreciate stocks that provide dividend growth -- reasons that are well supported by research. For example, the stock prices of companies that consistently increased their dividends outperformed those of businesses that only maintained their payouts by 3.7 percentage points annually, according to Ned Davis Research.  And the stocks of dividend growers outperformed non-dividend payers by an even greater 6.4 percentage points annually. Even better, these higher returns also came with significantly lower volatility.

Stronger returns, less volatility-induced stress, and a steadily growing income stream -- if this sounds like something you'd like to achieve with your retirement portfolio, read on to learn about three ETFs that can help you do so.

A person pointing to a rising dividend chart

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The Aristocrat

The ProShares S&P 500 Dividend Aristocrats ETF (NOBL 0.17%) tracks the S&P 500 Dividend Aristocrats Index, which is comprised of more than 50 high-quality companies that have raised their dividend payouts every year for at least 25 consecutive years. The index is equally weighted and rebalanced quarterly, so as to prevent any one company from becoming too large a holding. It also limits the weight of any single sector to no more than 30% of the index  in order to ensure diversification.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, with its focus on holding the most consistent dividend growers in the market today, the S&P 500 Dividend Aristocrats Index has outperformed the broader S&P 500 with lower volatility since its inception in May 2005  -- a trend I expect will continue in the years and decades ahead. The ETF provides investors with convenient exposure to this market-beating index for a relatively low expense ratio of 0.35%,  and it currently yields  1.87%.

Smaller companies, larger growth

For retirees willing to take on slightly more risk in exchange for the possibility of greater rewards, small- and mid-cap stocks can deliver higher returns than their large-cap brethren. And one great way to gain exposure to such stocks is through the ProShares Russell 2000 Dividend Growers ETF (SMDV 0.11%).

This ETF tracks the Russell 2000 Dividend Growth Index, and is currently comprised of 59 small- and mid-cap companies that have increased their dividends every year for at least a decade. Like the S&P 500 Dividend Aristocrats Index, this index is equally weighted, rebalanced quarterly, and caps sector weightings at 30%. The ProShares Russell 2000 Dividend Growers ETF's expense ratio is rather reasonable at 0.40%, and the fund currently yields  1.89%.

International dividend growth

Retirees seeking even broader diversification should consider adding  international exposure to their portfolios. One excellent way to get some is with the ProShares MSCI Emerging Markets Dividend Growers ETF (EMDV 0.41%).

This ETF tracks the performance of the MSCI Emerging Markets Dividend Masters Index, which is comprised of businesses that have grown their dividends for at least seven consecutive years. It gives investors significant exposure to rapidly growing markets such as China and India, while focusing on high-performing companies that have steadily increased their payouts to investors.

All told, the ProShares MSCI Emerging Markets Dividend Growers ETF -- with its 2.11%  dividend yield and 0.60%  expense ratio -- offers retirees a relatively low-cost way to own a diversified collection of high-quality, dividend-paying international stocks.

When combined, the ProShares MSCI Emerging Markets Dividend Growers ETF, the ProShares S&P 500 Dividend Aristocrats ETF, and the ProShares Russell 2000 Dividend Growers ETF provide investors with a convenient way to benefit from a broad swath of the best dividend growth stocks.