BALTIMORE ( Stockpickr) -- Even with U.S. stocks performing well at the start of 2012, dividends are still investors' best bet in this market. The S&P 500 index has rallied nearly 8% this year, one of the strongest starts for equities in recent memory, but that doesn't mean that dividends are out the door -- not in the least.In the past, dividends have been the last resort for a rough market. During the bull markets of the last decade, investors have opted to search out stocks with potential for capital gains, even if that meant sacrificing yield for their portfolios. But looking at the returns of the last decade has done quite a bit to change that mentality. In the past 10 years, dividend payouts have returned the vast majority of stock returns for investors, sparing income investors from the "lost decade" scenario that's scared so many away from stocks in the last few years. >>7 Hot Stocks on Traders' Radars But as stock prices slowly ratchet higher, yields are falling. The only antidote can be found in companies that hike their dividend payouts. That's why we're taking a closer look at seven dividend stocks raising their payouts in February. Want more reasons? Over the last 36 years, dividend stocks have outperformed the rest of the S&P 500 by 2.5% annually, and they outperformed nonpayers by nearly 8% every year, all while paying out cash to their shareholders, according to data compiled by Ned Davis Research. The numbers are even more compelling when looking at companies that consistently increase their payouts. That's why we pay close attention to the firms that are shoveling more corporate cash to shareholders each week. With that, here's a look at seven of the stocks that hiked payouts in the last week.