Dividends are an important aspect of the shareholder experience. Naturally, they reward long-term investors with quarterly "atta boy" pats of encouragement. Dividends also help gauge a company's success. If a company is willing to increase its distribution, it's often a good sign that the business is optimistic about its future earnings power. Readers of the Income Investor newsletter can certainly appreciate that kind of thinking.

Let's take a closer look at four of the companies that inched their payouts higher this past week.

We can start with Waste Industries (NASDAQ:WWIN). The trash-hauling and recycling-services provider didn't "waste" any time boosting its quarterly dividend from $0.09 a share to a full dime. Just a few quarters ago, the distribution was only $0.08 a share.

Our own Chuck Saletta had a chance encounter with the company's former CEO and discovered what many investors are realizing today: One man's garbage stock is another man's treasure. Buying into waste removal may seem like a dirty business, but those dividend checks arrive smudge-free and sparkling clean.

Hershey (NYSE:HSY) is also a little sweeter. The chocolate and foodstuffs specialist has made a refreshing habit out of inching its dividend rate higher every passing year, and 2006 won't be any different. Shareowners will be treated to a 10% increase with a $0.27 a share quarterly payout starting next month.

Harland (NYSE:JH) was another hiker. Then again, it's probably easy to do so when you're one of the country's largest check printers. The company behind checks, printed forms, and the "bubble in" Scantron business boosted its payout by 17% to $0.175 a share every three months.

If this doesn't seem like a glorious time to be printing checks, as financial institutions and payroll directors move towards electronic payments and direct deposits, think again. Harland's operations have actually been growing over the years, hence the comfort in propping up its yield.

Lastly, we have Horton (NYSE:DHI) hearing a hike. D.R. Horton is the top builder of residential real estate in the country by unit volume. The company provided new digs to more than 50,000 families last year. That's nice, but now shareholders can also move into a bigger dividend check after a huge 50% increase in the company's quarterly payout rate, to $0.15 a share.

Higher interest rates and a brutal oversupply of vacant homesteads have crushed the developers. Last month, the company posted a dip in quarterly profits -- D.R. Horton's first on this side of the millennium. However, even with annual dividend hikes since 2000, profits grew much faster for the company. For now, at least, it's able to provide generous distributions that remain well below its profitability level.

Subscribers to our Income Investor newsletter can appreciate the companies sending more and more money to their investors. Analyst Mathew Emmert has often singled out companies that are committed to growing their distributions with market-thumping results.

Want to see what Mathew's liking these days? Go ahead and give his newsletter service a shot with a 30-day trial subscription. Who knows? Maybe the next thing that will get hiked will be your interest.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz pays attention to yield signs. He does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story.The Fool has a disclosure policy. Rick is also part of theRule Breakersnewsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early.