The economy's in a recession, and there's no better time to protect your portfolio with some quality dividend stocks. They can provide you with some recurring cash flow and be pillars to build around. If you've got a strong emergency fund built up and can afford to invest $3,000, the three stocks listed below can not only provide you with some growing dividends but also add some diversification.

1. Johnson & Johnson

Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ) is a good place to start if you're looking for a solid dividend stock. The healthcare giant's increased its dividend payments for 58 years in a row, making it a Dividend King. And its latest increase wasn't a modest 1% or 2% bump up -- shareholders saw their dividend payments jump by 6.3%, for a current payout of $1.01 every quarter for each share of J&J that they own. That equates to an annual yield of 2.9% -- above the S&P 500 average of 2%.

Bills and coins.

Image source: Getty Images.

The stock isn't risk-free, as it's faced many lawsuits around issues with products ranging from vaginal mesh and opioids to Risperdal, which treats schizophrenia, and talc baby powder. But despite those challenges, the New Jersey-based company's still consistently posted a profit in each of its last four quarterly reports. And its free cash flow has also been higher than the dividends the company's paid out in each of those periods.

The company has downgraded its forecast for the year due to COVID-19, but it still expects to stay profitable, with adjusted per-share earnings between $7.50 to $7.90.

A big part of the reason for J&J's stability is that it's so versatile. Between consumer products, medical devices, and pharmaceuticals, the company is adaptable and has many different ways it can grow. It's even working on a vaccine for COVID-19. It plans to begin human trials as soon as July. With around 10 million cases of COVID-19 around the world, there would be plenty of demand for a vaccine to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Shares of the healthcare giant currently trade at a reasonable price-to-earnings (P/E) multiple of 22.

2. Verizon

Verizon Communications (NYSE:VZ) is another excellent dividend stock to hold. Although it doesn't have nearly the impressive dividend-growth streak going that J&J does, Verizon did raise its payments for the 13th year in a row last September. It makes up for its lack of Dividend King status with a much higher yield -- Verizon's quarterly dividend payment of $0.6150 means shareholders are earning 4.5% per year.

The dividend also looks to be in good shape, with Verizon recording free cash flow of more than $2.7 billion in each of its last four quarterly results, which is well above the $2.5 billion that it has paid out in dividends during those periods.

Shares of the telecom giant are trading at about 12 times earnings, well below the more than 15 P/E it reached a year ago.

That's not a bad price for a company that's continuing to expand its 5G network across the country. Its 5G ultra wideband wireless technology is currently available in dozens of cities across the U.S. Verizon's also accelerating the rollout of its 5G Home Internet service, which management expects to be available in 10 cities before the end of the year.

On April 24, the company released its first-quarter results. It posted per-share earnings of $1.26, which was better than analyst expectations of $1.22. And that was despite a 1.6% drop in operating revenue because of lockdowns and store closures due to COVID-19. But over the long term, the company should see much stronger growth as it continues to expand its 5G network.

3. Citigroup

Citigroup (NYSE:C) currently pays its shareholders a quarterly dividend of $0.51. Annually, that's good for a return of 3.9%. Citigroup doesn't have a good track record of increasing its dividend payments, as it's only been doing so consistently since 2016. And a deep recession could put future hikes in jeopardy. However, over the long haul, the bank stock's likely to pay a dividend, even if it has to make a temporary suspension or cut it amid the pandemic.

That's why even if you may be hesitant to invest in this bank stock, if you're looking at the long term, it's hard not to like the stock given its cheap valuation. At a P/E of only 7 and trading for about 0.6 times its book value, Citigroup's a calculated risk for long-term investors to take.

When the company released its first-quarter results on April 15, Citigroup's bottom line was cut in half after the bank built up its credit reserves by more than $4 billion. It also demonstrates just how strong its financials are that the bank stock can take such a significant hit to its financials and still stay in the black with a net income of $2.5 billion.

Which stock is the best to own today?

Before deciding which stock is the best of the three, let's quickly take a look at how they've all done this year:

JNJ Chart

JNJ data by YCharts

Only J&J has outperformed the S&P 500, and it hasn't been by a wide margin. With a higher dividend yield and a more depressed share price, Verizon's the stock I'd rank at the top of this list. The growth it offers from its 5G expansion is icing on the cake and makes it too good an investment to pass up right now.

But if you've got $3,000 to spare, then investing $1,000 in each of these dividend stocks can give you the best mix of value, dividends, and growth for your money.

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.