In periods of rising inflation and slowing economic growth, investors often turn to the stability and reliability of dividend stocks to see them through the tough times -- and with good reason.

The asset managers at Hartford Funds studied the performance of the benchmark S&P 500 going all the way back to 1930, looking at stocks that pay dividends and those that don't, and found over that near-100-year period, dividend-paying stocks contributed 41% to the index's total return.

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This was regardless of whether there were wars or recessions. It also includes the so-called "lost decade" of the 2000s, where the dot-com bubble, 9/11, and the financial markets collapse all conspired to generate negative returns for the S&P 500, but dividend stocks still gained 1.8%.

The Hartford study also found that from 1970 on, dividends represented an amazing 84% of the index's total return. Reinvesting dividends in the benchmark, coupled with the power of compounding, would have turned a $10,000 investment into more than $3.8 million, compared to the $627,161 the index's price alone generated.

Buying dividend-paying stocks is a proven, profitable strategy for generating superior long-term returns, and these four dividend stocks happen to be among the best on the S&P 500.

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Altria Group (Yield: 6.8%)

Altria Group (MO 1.06%), maker of the leading global cigarette brand Marlboro, can light up an investor's portfolio in good times and bad. When the economy is growing, the tobacco stock commands unique pricing power unavailable to most other companies.

Because of the addictive nature of nicotine, smokers have shown themselves willing to pay just about whatever Altria and other cigarette manufacturers can charge. Several times a year, tobacco companies will raise the price of a pack of cigarettes to offset the imposition of new excise taxes or rising commodity costs without losing many customers.

When the economy sours, though, the incidence of smoking increases. At the start of the pandemic, consumers hoarded cigarettes ahead of the lockdowns, and smoking actually increased.

Cigarette smoking is still in a secular decline, but there are still tens of millions of smokers, and they're willing to pay up for nicotine. Altria's Marlboro retains a near-43% share of the U.S. market, and because of Altria's agreements with Philip Morris International, which distributes the brand outside the U.S., Marlboro has a top 16.2% share in the global markets. p. 70

It has paid a dividend for decades and has raised it every year for over 50 years. It maintains a policy of paying out about 80% of its adjusted earnings as dividends and is a star member of the S&P 500 because of it.

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AT&T and Verizon (Yields: 5.6% and 5.3%)

Telecom giants AT&T (T -2.41%) and Verizon (VZ -0.90%) are grouped together because they have the same strong catalysts for future growth. It doesn't have to be an either-or situation; investors can buy both and win.

The rollout of 5G networks over the coming years should lift both telecoms as consumers spend more on enhanced video, augmented and virtual reality, and digital gaming over 5G networks. 

AT&T was a major spectrum buyer during recent government auctions and acquired a substantial number in the sub-6 gigahertz range. Analysts estimate the entire consumer 5G network market will be worth $31 trillion by 2030, and carriers like AT&T are expected to receive an estimated $3.7 trillion of it.

Verizon, on the other hand, owns the most spectrum in the sub-6 gigahertz range where 5G networks will exist (AT&T had been a big spender in recent government auctions for spectrum in that space after Verizon dropped out), but it's also the leading owner of millimeter-wave spectrum, where analysts anticipate the market will eventually end up.

A lot was made of AT&T halving its dividend as a result of the Warner Bros Discovery spinoff, but the $43 billion it received will allow it to pay down debt and make more focused investments in its telecom business now that it doesn't have the distraction of its entertainment unit.

Both pay a dividend with a juicy yield, and while the former Ma Bell's dividend cut halts its progress on becoming a Dividend Aristocrat (it has still made a payout for over 100 years), Verizon is well on its way, having begun making a payout after going public in 2000 and increasing it every year since 2006.

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Chevron (Yield: 3.4%)

Rising oil and gas prices are benefiting Chevron's (CVX -0.01%) bottom line, as it generates record cash flows that it is using to bolster its balance sheet and reward investors with stock buybacks. It has committed to repurchasing between $5 billion and $10 billion worth of stock every year through 2026, while also limiting the amount it devotes to new projects at $17 billion annually, or about half the rate it previously spent.

Unlike rival ExxonMobil, which wrote down some $4 billion worth of investments in Russia due to the invasion of Ukraine, Chevron is one of the least exposed oil majors, so it won't suffer much of a setback.

It does have a 15% interest in a Caspian Sea oil pipeline to Europe that Russian president Vladimir Putin is throttling supplies on in the name of "repairs," but even if it were totally shut down, it only represents 4% of Chevron's upstream earnings and less than 3% total profits.

The oil giant raised its dividend 6% earlier this year, above what Wall Street was expecting, as it continues to share the profits it's making with shareholders. It has increased its payout for 35 consecutive years, and with stock buybacks, cash returned to shareholders is expected to grow over 50% from last year.