Nobody forces companies to pay dividends. Investors can hope that the businesses they own are able to do so. Boards of directors can plan capital allocation decisions around assuring there'll be enough cash lying around to make the payments. And companies themselves can establish a reputation as good, solid dividend paying companies.

But at the end of the day, paying dividends remains an optional activity. If a company gets into a really tight spot, its dividends are often among the earliest things to get jettisoned.

Is there a problem?
That's especially true these days. The current recession has come with an amazingly severe credit crunch. At the worst of the crunch, it was nearly impossible for even AAA-rated companies to borrow money affordably. When borrowed money is that difficult to come by, handing over significant chunks of cash by making optional dividend payments may seem a bit absurd.

Yet many companies have maintained their dividends throughout this mess. A few -- largely those with extremely strong financial and operational positions -- actually raised those optional payments. For a business to be able to do that at a time like this, when cash is so very hard to come by, is a very clear signal of just how strong it really is.

Here are just a few companies that are members of that elite corps:


Current Yield

Recent Dividend Growth

Payout Ratio

Net Income
(in Millions)

Cash From Operations
(in Millions)



















FPL Group






General Mills






Yum! Brands






Campbell Soup






Even better, it looks like they may be capable of continuing that trend of raising dividends, even if this economic mess continues for quite some time. With operating cash flows above their reported earnings, their businesses remain solid enough to keep up the payments. And with payout ratios below 50%, they're not scraping the bottom of the barrel to make those payments.

Best of all, they've been able to do that in the middle of an economy that has been called the worst since the Great Depression. Talk about being among the strongest companies around.

Get your piece of that strength
Now, these are likely not next year's 10-bagger stocks, and a few of them may not even live up to more modest expectations. But by focusing on longtime dividend payers with both a history of and an ability to raise those payments, you greatly stack the odds in your favor. The lesson is that these types of companies are the bedrock upon which you can build your portfolio.

At Motley Fool Income Investor, we appreciate the strength that solid, well-supported dividends project, almost as much as we like having the cold, hard cash that they provide in our pockets. In ordinary times, those payments provide the most tangible part of an investor's return. In these troubled times, they take on a whole new meaning and level of importance.

If you're ready to invest in businesses that are strong enough to be able to reward their owners, even today, then join us now. To see which companies have already made our cut, click here to start your 30-day free trial of Income Investor.

At the time of publication, Fool contributor Chuck Saletta did not own shares of any company mentioned in this article. The Fool owns shares of Medtronic and has a disclosure policy.